By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Jul 31, 2020) US Soccer Players - If Major League Soccer was going for "unpredictable" with the MLS Is Back tournament in Orlando, they couldn't have planned it any better. The group stage threw up plenty of surprises. The round of 16 delivered its fair share of eyebrow-raising moments. We can't expect anything less from the quarterfinals.
This isn't to say you should throw out everything you think you know about the teams left in the field. Tournament soccer is more subject to the whims of fate than the regular season soccer we'd be watching if not for the coronavirus pandemic. That doesn't mean we can't carry expectations into the later rounds.
Case in point, Bob Bradley's rampant Los Angeles Football Club. LAFC entered the bubble in Orlando as favorites to go deep in the competition, even without reigning MLS MVP Carlos Vela. Focus on the attacking end of the field shifted to Diego Rossi. The 22-year-old answered the call resoundingly.
Heading into the quarterfinal matchup against Orlando, Rossi leads the MLS Is Back scoring race with seven. That's not just good enough to lead all players. It's more than all but five teams have scored in Florida. He's tied with Columbus and Orlando in total goals. Rossi's output is a reflection of his talent, but it also highlights just how devastating LAFC has been on the attacking end of the field.
To drive home the point about the whole-team effort of LAFC in Orlando, the club has two of the tournament's top assist men as well. Both Latif Blessing and Brian Rodriguez have four so far.
Defensively, no one would call LAFC unimpeachable. Bradley and his squad are more than happy to leave open space behind them in the quests for goals. That occasionally gifts chances to opponents. LAFC's trade-off works because scoring more goals than the opponent is still the point of the game. LAFC is very good at outscoring its opponents. One-nothing or 5-2, a win is a win.
LAFC's next challenge comes in the form of the "home" team in Florida, Orlando City. This is not last year's, or any year's for that matter, Orlando City team. Oscar Pareja's influence is obvious. It's not just in the palpable spirit of the team. It's also in the way they play. Previous versions of Orlando City largely worked the channels or relied on set pieces, trading less on the overall quality of their soccer than on luck and determination.
A coherent style that takes advantage of Orlando's ranging fullbacks Ruan and Joao Moutinho and the abilities of Designated Player Nani and up-and-coming forward Chris Mueller has the Lions knocking on the door of the semifinals. Reaching the final four of the impromptu tourney in the club's backyard would represent the high-water mark of its MLS existence.
The balance of talent and record of success being what it is, Orlando's chances shift on LAFC's pressure and tempo. Bradley's team is relentless. Latif Blessing works in the middle of the field, closing on the ball whenever LAFC is attempting to recover possession and pinging passes forward when it has it. That makes LAFC supremely confident in its ball movement.
As long as the game plays out at a high pace that they typically dictate, LAFC is incredibly difficult to beat. If Orlando can slow the Supporters' Shield holders down, they might have a chance.
The weekend's second quarterfinal is a battle of the underdogs. The San Jose Earthquakes arrive brimming with the confidence of a team that doesn't know it's not supposed to be here. Matias Almeyda's program has full buy-in from the Quakes roster. That gives them a chance against the rest of the field, regardless of the difference in talent.
Meanwhile, Minnesota United head coach Adrian Heath will need to execute some rhetorical gymnastics to play the "no respect" card that he so enjoys pulling from the motivational deck. Heath has turned using the underdog role into an artform in Minnesota, where a two-year run of bad results and worse defending established the Loons as something of an MLS laughingstock.
Unlike Orlando City, Minnesota United made the playoffs in 2019 and earned plenty of respect in the process. Heath is certainly aware of his club's newfound esteem, but he's more than happy to twist the narrative of any particular opponent to his purposes. We anxiously await his attempts to make the Loons the second-choice of the "media" ahead of Saturday's game.
Minnesota enters as the favorite, even with two key injury issues that will affect their chances. Per Heath, both fullback Romain Metanire and attacker Kevin Molino will be game-time decisions to play. Metanire is among the league's best fullbacks. Molino is a creative force when on the field.
Everyone knows what San Jose wants to do when the game starts, yet few teams seem truly ready to deal with Almeyda's high-intensity man-marking system. There is some structure to the chaos, but it's not wrong to suggest that the Quakes want to create just that, chaos. Too many times last season, that chaos sweeps up the Earthquakes themselves and they self-destruct. Sometimes, as it has in Orlando, San Jose uses that chaos to their advantage.
Minnesota was happy to let Columbus have the ball in the round of 16. If not for a wild challenge by Jose Aja that led to the Crew's goal via penalty kick, the Loons might have cruised to a relatively comfortable 1-0 victory. It seems likely Minnesota will take the same tack with the Quakes. Cede possession, defend in numbers, and look for opportunities on the break.
With the MLS Defender of the Year Ika Opara watching at home, it makes sense that Heath wants to augment his defense with numbers sitting behind the ball. The first goal in a game like this one looms even larger than in most knockout games. If Minnesota scores first as they did against Columbus, it will force San Jose to push numbers forward and risk the gaps in behind as they chase the game.
In case you need a reminder, the Loons went to Earthquakes Stadium in March and throttled San Jose 5-2 using an approach that made the Quakes take the initiative. We'll find out if history repeats.
Will the underdogs prevail? It's a guarantee if we buy what Minnesota is selling. Can LAFC make their status as favorites count? Will this unpredictable tournament remain unpredictable? MLS takes another step in an unlikely situation producing intriguing soccer.
More From Jason Davis:
- Seattle, Toronto, and contending in this version of MLS
- The Red Bulls, Atlanta, and MLS clubs in crisis
- MLS creates a unique shop window
- MLS is Back embraces uncertainty
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