The MLS is Back tournament is on to the semifinals. Four teams remain: Orlando City SC, Minnesota United, the Portland Timbers, and the Philadelphia Union. The tournament has been a great success and the semis promise to be just as exciting.
Let’s preview the two games.
Philadelphia Union vs Portland Timbers (Wednesday, 8pm EST)
The Union haven’t been particularly impressive for most of this tournament, but here they are in the semis against Portland, a team that feels like the best of the semifinalists. Philly entered the tournament as a potential favorite of neutral fans: a possession-happy high-press squad playing a bunch of fun young players and the eternally interesting 4-4-2 diamond formation. Their games, often slower chess matches and cagey affairs, haven’t lived up to that expectation.
They’ve needed goalkeeper Andre Blake to make all sorts of impressive saves to keep them afloat. There have been concerns in Philly about midfield distribution (with former d-mid Haris Medunjanin traded to Cincinnati in the offseason) as well as the feasibility of Brenden Aaronson as a primary creator. Some of those concerns vanished in the first half of the quarterfinal against Sporting KC, in which the Union blitzed three goals in a 15-minute span and then sat back and let SKC control play. (Philly ultimately finished with three shots on goal, all three of which went in.) Their attacking concerns didn’t feel as pressing when they were tearing up Sporting’s backline for a brief period.
Nothing will come easy against Portland, a team that has won every way that it can in this tournament. The Timbers can control possession and break down bunkering teams, or they can sit back and hit you on the counter. They brought Diego Valeri off the bench against NYCFC as a super-sub, to great effect. (Not sure that Valeri will want to do that again, though.) Sebastian Blanco has played like a bona fide star in this tournament.
The Timbers are the best team left, and they have the better attackers.
Orlando City SC vs. Minnesota United (Thursday, 8pm EST)
The two “underdogs” of the tournament face off. Neither club was expected to make it this far, though we know that Adrian Heath’s proclamations of widespread Loons haters are greatly exaggerated. For Minnesota, the loss of star center back Ike Opara prior to the tournament cast doubt on their ability to defend effectively, and further injuries in Orlando (to attacker Kevin Molino and right back Romain Metanire) further lowered their chances. They’ve managed to overcome, defeating Columbus and San Jose.
OCSC does not exactly have an illustrious MLS history since entering in 2015. They’ve churned through managers (including Heath, their first MLS coach) and have never qualified for the MLS playoffs, despite various attempts at major acquisitions and rebuilds. Given that more than half of teams make the playoffs every year, missing out five straight years is not ideal. New manager Oscar Pareja started the year back in March with a 0-0 draw and a 2-1 loss.
Now, however, Pareja has turned the ship around, at the perfect time: the Lions have a chance to win this bubble tournament in their home city. Pareja, a manager with a very successful previous record in MLS, has Orlando playing nice and clean possession soccer. They haven’t made the defensive mistakes that used to characterize their MLS existence, and they play an organized style all over the field.
Most important: they have difference-making attackers. Winger Chris Mueller has made a leap as a creator and scorer. DP No. 10 Mauricio Pereyra is clever on the ball, living up to the high hopes placed on him when he was signed last summer. Nani has scored the important goals and come through in the big moments.
Read more on Minnesota here. The gist is that they have a dominant defensive midfield, led by Ozzie Alonso, and score a ton on set pieces.
Orlando’s attack and possession style has been too impressive to pick against them.
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