Preview: LAFC favorites to reach MLS is Back semis; who joins them?
Who will join the Philadelphia Union, who dismantled Sporting Kansas City in the first of four quarterfinal matchups on Thursday, in the semifinals of the MLS is Back tournament?
Orlando City SC v. Los Angeles FC — Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET
While it’s impossible to say with absolute certainty ahead of the weekend’s games, at least one clear favorite stands head and shoulders above the other six remaining sides: reigning Supporters’ Shield winners, LAFC — yes, even without reigning MLS MVP Carlos Vela who opted out of the tournament to remain with his pregnant and to be present for the birth of their child.
After a bumpy start to the group stage, LAFC thrashed rivals LA Galaxy in group game no. 2; it was more of the same against reigning MLS Cup winners Seattle Sounders in the round of 16 — arguably the two most impressive performances of the tournament thus far. Diego Rossi has been happy to step in and shoulder the goal-scoring load with seven goals in four games — paving the way for rumors-a-plenty about European transfer interest — along with Bradley Wright-Phillips, who scored a goal in each of the three group games.
As for Friday’s opponent and the surprise performers of the tournament thus far, Orlando City, under the guidance of newly installed head coach Oscar Pareja, are enjoying what is easily their best run of results since joining MLS in 2015, making this the most intriguing clash of the quarterfinals.
San Jose Earthquake v. Minnesota United — Saturday, 8 p.m. ET
Speaking of massively improved sides under a new head coach, Matias Almeyda got San Jose playing some high-quality soccer for much of 2019 before the wheels fell off late in the season. Almeyda is back for a second season in the Bay Area, and the ‘Quakes look to have gone to another level under the Argentine’s guidance. Winger Cristian Espinoza was a particularly bright spot last season and has only picked up where he left off with two goals and an assist in Orlando already. With Espinoza opposite Vako on the other side of the field, San Jose are getting significant contributions from the wings, which is a welcome change of pace after years of having to rely too heavily upon Chris Wondolowski and only Wondo.
With all of that said, Minnesota should prove to be a particularly tough matchup, given the degree to which they limit teams’ chances. Adrian Heath loves to play the “nobody believes in us, everybody thinks we’re terrible” card, but the rest of the league has taken notice of the Loons, who are yet to lose in this tournament. Having taken down early-days darlings Columbus Crew SC, the only side to win all three of their group games, in the round of 16 will ensure that Minnesota are no longer able to fly under anyone’s radar.
New York City FC v. Portland Timbers — Saturday, 10:30 p.m. ET
The final game of the weekend is just as intriguing as the first two, but for a different reason. NYCFC and Portland have each mucked and yucked their respective paths to the quarterfinals without ever once looking overly dominant or… good. NYCFC advanced from the group stage as third-place finishers with just three points, and though Portland won their group and finished ahead of LAFC, they never looked convincing — a pair of 2-1 victories over the Galaxy and Houston Dynamo is hardly something to brag about.
So, now they face one another — a near-mirror image of themselves, both in terms of their respective paths to this point and a very familiar tactical approach. Though each side has plenty of South American attacking talent, Ronny Deila and Giovanni Savarese have each favored a low-block defensive approach and hung their hopes on creating scoring chances on the counter. So, Sunday’s late game presents us with the age-old question: what happens when two teams who sit back and wait for their opponents to attack play one another? The result, as is often the case, could be a rather difficult watch.