And here we are, at the Final Four of the MLS is Back Tournament! Wait is that name taken? Yes? Ok then, it appears that name is taken.
Anyway, it's the semifinals and if you predicted which teams are now just 180 minutes (and maybe some PKs) away from a trophy, congratulations on being a witch or a futurist or a precog of some sort. Consider yourself reported to the appropriate authorities.
Away we go:
Orlando City SC vs. Minnesota United
Thursday, August 6 (8 pm ET | ESPN2, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN, TVAS2 in Canada)
What Orlando City will do: So far this summer Orlando City have been good at... everything.
Yup, that's what my notes say, and my notes don't lie. Thus far this summer Orlando City have been good at pretty much everything you need to be good at* in order to be a successful soccer team. Timely set pieces? Yes. Transition goals? Of course. Clutch plays from your big-name, big-money players? Absolutely. Gorgeous build-up team goals? They've done that, too.
(*) Ok, their finishing hasn't been great.
And here's the big thing: They jumped all over LAFC in the first half of that quarterfinal, pressing and just smothering the high-flying Supporters' Shield champs. They are the first team to ever hold LAFC without a shot for an entire half.
Usually in those situations — situations in which they're getting outplayed — LAFC just say "ok, we can't build out, so we'll just press our way to a goal or two." And to be fair, LAFC did get the go-ahead goal via a midfield turnover. But even after going 1-0 down, and trailing late, and seeing their dreams on the verge of slipping away, here's how the Lions handled the moment:
That is gorgeous. By and large they force you to beat them by making special plays; they haven't been beating themselves. First time I've ever written that about an Orlando team.
I'm pretty sure Oscar Pareja will have his team come out in their usual 4-2-3-1 and have them pressing Minnesota right off the kick. I also suspect he'll try to reprise the trick he used against Montreal, when he used arguably his most important player — No. 10 Mauricio Pereyra — as a decoy to pop Victor Wanyama out from in front of the center backs:
That's where Ozzie Alonso's been living for Minnesota. The Crew repeatedly tried to overload either side of Ozzie and had some luck, just no finish. So expect Pereyra to drift out and Nani to slide inside into those pockets when the Lions are in possession, because if you just let Ozzie sit and destroy, you are not going to create anything.
What Minnesota will do: Adrian Heath had his Loons just blitz San Jose in the early going of the quarterfinals. We'd all gotten used to thinking of Minnesota as a set-pieces-and-counters team, one that gladly just gave up possession and absorbed everything you could throw at them and then annihilated you in those moments-in-between-moments.
And to be fair they are that to a large extent, but they're also a super fit-and-physical team who weren't going to let the Quakes do the things the Quakes had largely been so good at doing throughout the tournament. Yes, Minnesota had only 30% of the ball. So what? You don't need the ball to put in a dominant performance.
Of course, pressing the mistake-prone Quakes and the only-rarely-make-a-mistake Lions... it's a different thing, especially since in Ruan, Orlando City might as well have Usain Bolt at right back. If you try to play on the front foot and turn the ball over in the wrong spot while in possession, or miss a tackle while counter-pressing and Ruan's off to the races, you are never going to catch him and you are probably going to be asking Tyler Miller to make a great save.
The great news for Heath, though, is the Loons haven't really had to be multi-dimensional. Alonso and Jan Gregus in central midfield have been indomitable, the backline's been resilient, and they are devastating on restarts. Just devastating. Minnesota might be better on attacking set pieces than any other MLS team is in any other particular phase of play right now
- Two of their four goals vs. San Jose came on recycled corners.
- Their only goal vs. Columbus came off a corner.
- Their first goal vs. Colorado came from a corner.
- Their first goal vs. Sporting came when a Gregus free kick forced an own goal.
- Two of their five goals vs. San Jose in March came off of corners, and they also earned a penalty off a corner.
They have played seven games in 2020, and have scored off set pieces (or drawn a PK that was subsequently converted) eight times. That's absurd.
Twice this year they haven't been able to score off a set piece. In one of those games they were shut out, and in the other they scored three counterattack goals. That is also absurd.
Minnesota's Plan A has been unbeatable this tournament. Why change?
X-Factor: That's not to say the Loons are entirely unable to create goals out of possession. They are particularly dangerous when right back Romain Metanire gets all the way forward.
But that's the big x-factor on both sides, as Metanire and Kevin Molino are both some form of "questionable" for Minnesota, while the same is true of Chris Mueller for Orlando City. In Hassani Dotson, Heath has a ready-made replacement for Metanire, though playing him at right back means a less defensively dynamic central midfield (Dotson played as an advanced destroyer vs. Columbus and took Darlington Nagbe out of the game), and even if Dotson is a very good attacking right back, he's not Metanire. Not yet anyway.
They've gotten on okay for three games without Molino. They're a more dangerous team with him in there, by miles, but at this point they have to be used to being without the Trinidadian attacker.
As for Mueller, Benji Michel has been a useful and energetic replacement, but remember those overloads in the pockets next to Alonso I was talking about? Mueller has shown the ability to do damage from those spots while Michel, thus far, has not.
Maybe he can. Maybe he will! Maybe the game won't even be decided there. Regardless, it's certainly going to be one of the leverage points Orlando look to exploit and Minnesota try to protect, and my guess is a lot of what unfolds over 90 minutes will be reverberations from the game-within-a-game taking place on that part of the field.