With all 36 of the MLS is Back Tournament group-stage games complete, the competition moves on to the knockout round as the field whittles down from 24 to 16 — and with plenty of on-field drama along the way. Pretournament favorites like Atlanta United FC (who were held scoreless in all three of their games) and the New York Red Bulls are out, along with five-time MLS Cup champions LA Galaxy.
As we embark on the round of 16, new favorites have emerged, teams we’ve come to expect great things from, like LAFC, and outfits that have taken the tournament by surprise, like Columbus Crew SC. We break down the 16 remaining sides, and what they’ll need to do to reach the quarterfinals and beyond.
Perennially underachieving Orlando entered the tournament to little fanfare, but Chris Mueller has provided goals and a sense of urgency that has lifted the Lions to wins against Inter Miami CF and NYCFC — to say nothing of Nani’s ever-present influence. In a group with D.C. United, New England and Toronto FC, few would have expected Montreal to make the knockout rounds — something not lost on Thierry Henry, who’s been quick to remind of his group’s underdog status — yet here it stands.
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Henry’s men have oscillated between pragmatic and expansive as he’s experimented with his XI, and the Impact will need to return to the former approach — as they did in the second leg of their CONCACAF Champions League round-of-16 win over Costa Rican powerhouse Saprissa — to stifle Nani, Mueller and a revitalized Tesho Akindele. There is a belief among Oscar Pareja’s team and keeping them from making a run in their home town will be a tall order for Montreal.
Our pick: Orlando
The Union’s goals have come from a variety of sources, but the spark brought by 19-year-old Brenden Aaronson has often lit their fuse — and if not him, then 34-year-old super-sub Ilsinho. Much has been expected of the Revs this season, and with Bruce Arena managing such creative and clinical attacking threats, it’s easy to understand why. That said, they’ve scored just four goals in five games this season, and only two in the MLS is Back Tournament, which makes playmaker and captain Carles Gil’s probable absence due to a reported foot injury all the more troublesome.
Arena’s tactical and motivational nous can never be discounted, but it’s how Scott Caldwell and Kelyn Rowe can shield the back line and handle Philly’s multidimensional threats that will determine whether they’re able to upset one of the Eastern Conference favorites in 2020.
Our pick: Philadelphia
No Jozy Altidore, no problem for Toronto, which has witnessed Ayo Akinola blossom from promising youth academy product to potential U.S. men’s national team (or Canada or Nigeria, should he so choose) call-up, following his five goals in three games and all-around devastating form in this tournament. NYCFC have a dubious penalty awarded by Victor Rivas on the group stage’s final evening to thank for their place in the round of 16, a call that knocked Houston out of the competition and saved the Bronx side’s place after an underwhelming group stage in which their sole victory came against hapless Miami.
There was an element of misfortune to City’s group-stage struggles, however, controlling possession and creating more chances in all three of their contests. With versatile attackers like Valentin Castellanos and Alexandru Mitrita, NYCFC have the ability to overwhelm a Toronto back line that lacks mobility especially against pacy attacks. But Akinola has been downright unplayable throughout this tournament, and that’s why we give the Reds the edge.
Our pick: Toronto
After their late collapse that cost them three points against Minnesota — a game in which they dominated for an hour or more — Sporting rebounded with two impressive wins behind a reborn Khiry Shelton in a hotly contested Group D. Vancouver conceded seven times in its first two matches before managing to keep a clean sheet against an increasingly suspect Chicago side, and were outshot 74 to 19 along the way. Maybe that shouldn’t come as a surprise considering the Canadian club is without 10 first-team players at this tournament.
Sporting put together a plus-20 shot differential in their group stage, so they can expect chances aplenty against the Caps. As long as Alan Pulido and the rest of the SKC front line remember to lace up their scoring boots, there’s little to suggest that Vancouver can slow down the league’s second-most prolific attack in 2020.
Our pick: Sporting KC
After a cagey scoreless draw with MLS Cup champion Seattle in their opener, the Quakes scored six times in their next two matches, dictating play and out-chancing their opponents in all three group-stage contests. In RSL’s two games without Albert Rusnak after he suffered a hip injury against Colorado, they still managed to control the tempo but were shut out and out-chanced.
On paper, Salt Lake has enough attacking threat to offset Rusnak’s loss, but his absence is felt most in creating chances, the burden of which will fall primarily on the shoulders of Corey Baird, who didn’t go 90 minutes in either of RSL’s second two matches. Despite two clean sheets in this tournament, San Jose’s goals-against column this season sits at 10 in five matches; if the Quakes are to go any further, they’ll need to keep things as tight at the back as they did against Seattle and Chicago.
Our pick: San Jose
San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski tells Taylor Twellman he’s open to returning for one more season.
As is tradition in Seattle, the Sounders sleep-walked through their first two matches of the tournament — picking up a solitary point in the process — before Nicolas Lodeiro, Jordan Morris and Raul Ruidiaz came up big in a win over Vancouver, scoring the goals that saw them come through in second place from Group B. There is no doubting the firepower of Supporters’ Shield holders LAFC, who’ve notched 11 goals in three games, led by Diego Rossi (5) and Bradley Wright-Phillips (3), but questionable defending and goalkeeping saw them concede seven times and ultimately cost them top spot in Group F and what (on paper) would’ve been a more straightforward path to the quarterfinals in a matchup with Cincinnati.
If Seattle’s attack can get rolling like it did in its win over Vancouver, it has the pieces to outgun LAFC’s vulnerable defense, but dropped points against San Jose and Chicago demonstrate that that’s no given. Even if this contest were to devolve into a wide-open, run-and-gun affair, Bob Bradley & Co. will still like their chances.
Our pick: LAFC
Columbus has the most points of any team in the league, has yet to concede a goal in this tournament, all while scoring seven times in their three wins in Orlando. Caleb Porter’s Crew are undoubtedly the darlings of MLS is Back. Minnesota was outplayed for large stretches of all three of its group-stage games so far, but has developed an incredible knack for playing brief, outstanding periods of soccer, as was the case with a pair of stoppage-time goals to snatch a win against SKC and two goals in the span of seven minutes in a draw vs. Colorado.
Ozzie Alonso and Hassani Dotson will need to be exceptional in helping shield the Loons’ back line from the breathtaking Lucas Zelarayan and Darlington Nagbe, because without two-time Defender of the Year Ike Opara, Minnesota will struggle to contain Zelarayan, Gyasi Zardes and Youness Mokhtar — who’ve combined to score all seven of the Crew’s goals in Orlando.
Our pick: Columbus
Coming into the tournament, few would’ve predicted Cincinnati would advance from a group that contained Atlanta, Columbus and the Red Bulls — fewer still after they were rolled 4-0 in the Hell is Real derby. But some organized defending and moments of brilliance from Frankie Amaya and Yuya Kubo have led the second-year franchise to an unexpected run to the knockout rounds. Portland has looked startlingly vulnerable in Orlando, being out-possessed in two of its three group-stage games and out-chanced in all three, but has managed to find ways to win behind the influential play of Sebastian Blanco and the goals of blossoming forward Jeremy Ebobisse.
Since its drubbing at the hands of Columbus, Cincinnati has kept clean sheets against two Eastern Conference powers in Atlanta and the Red Bulls, and the organization that Jaap Stam has instilled in his side since his arrival has every chance of frustrating the Timbers’ creators. But while the Oregonian club may not have been overpowering in this tournament, it’s demonstrated an ability to grind out the results needed to win a group that contained both Los Angeles clubs.
Our pick: Portland