Saturday kicks off the knockout rounds of the MLS is Back tournament. There are 16 teams left and for the most part, there aren’t too many clear juggernauts. Only the Columbus Crew won all three of their group stage games. LAFC, without Carlos Vela, have poured in 11 goals, but have also given up seven, tied for second-most.
There are some unexpected contenders, and some sleeping giants. Let’s rank the top contenders to win the whole thing.
1. Columbus Crew
I wrote about them a couple of days ago, and given their flawless results in the group stage, I can’t justify putting anyone above them here. Columbus conceded a grand total of zero goals in the three group games. Against Minnesota United in the round of 16, it’s not a bad bet that they’ll keep up that clean sheet streak, even as goalkeeper Eloy Room and center back Vito Wormgoor have been ruled out.
Minnesota is a fairly difficult opening matchup, though I wonder how long their backline can hold up without Ike Opara. Jose Aja, to put it mildly, does not have an extensive history as a shutdown center back in this league. But the Loons have been solid, and they won’t be pushovers. If the Crew get through that match, they face either Real Salt Lake or the San Jose Earthquakes, and I’d be confident in Columbus against both.
2. Portland Timbers
Portland won their first two games and then drew with LAFC in the third, winning Group F. They have the honor of facing FC Cincinnati in the first round, perhaps the most favorable matchup they could have gotten. Cincy won two of their three games, but they’re predictable (a deep-set 5-3-2) and the Timbers have shown promise against teams that sit back and concede possession.
With Eryk Williamson, Diego Chara, and Diego Valeri, the Timbers have a fun and energetic midfield, and wingers Sebastian Blanco and Yimmi Chara create chances with speed and clever dribbling. Jeremy Ebobisse has been scoring goals — start him, Giovani! Portland is a good all-around team and they no longer rely heavily on low-percentage crosses.
3. Toronto FC
Something about TFC convinced me to rank them above LAFC. Toronto have players who win games in attack and they have enough to get by on defense, with right back Richie Laryea rising as an overlapper and veterans Omar Gonzalez and Chris Mavinga partnering in central defense. TFC can sometimes have lapses, but a clean sheet in the third game against New England was a good sign.
There’s a chance that we see both Jozy Altidore and Ayo Akinola in the same lineup. Altidore played four minutes off the bench against the Revs after an injury forced him out of the first two games. It remains to be seen if Greg Vanney is willing to play them up top together, but they present an intriguing fit stylistically, and with Alejandro Pozuelo underneath, there could be a familiar Altidore-Sebastian Giovinco-Victor Vazquez dynamic going on. Toronto should score goals, and they have a history of eliminating NYCFC from the postseason.
Perhaps I’m underrating LAFC, who have a wealth of riches and the best coach in the league. Bob Bradley shifted Latif Blessing to right back in LA’s final group stage game, giving them further versatility and flexibility. The front three of Diego Rossi, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Brian Rodriguez has had no trouble pouring in goals.
Two reasons why I ranked them fourth here: 1) their defense has been a tad suspect, with no clear replacement for Walker Zimmerman stepping up and at least two goals conceded in all three games and 2) they have to deal with the Seattle Sounders in the first round, one of the more difficult opponents they could’ve gotten.
Even still, this team has firepower and talent everywhere. BWP is at full goal-scoring strength. This team might end up being a step ahead of everyone else.
5. Seattle Sounders
While I can say LAFC might be a step ahead, it’s not like the Sounders didn’t beat LA in last year’s Western Conference finals. Seattle are battle-tested and have a history navigating their way through elimination tournaments. You can never count out the Sounders.
Jordan Morris has taken a leap this season as a goal-scoring and playmaking winger. He’s passing at an elite level and dicing defenders with ball control we haven’t seen from him before. Along with striker Raul Ruidiaz, who has a history of clutch scoring, and fulcrum Nicolas Lodeiro, the Sounders should be able to keep up with LA’s high-powered attack. It’s their backline, where they’ve lost significant contributors in the last year, that will be the cause of concern. Expect some fireworks in the first round.
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