The MLS is Back Tournament semifinals are set.
Minnesota United and the Portland Timbers were Saturday’s survivors, kicking the San Jose Earthquakes and NYCFC out of the running to set up two intriguing matchups with Orlando City and the Philadelphia Union, respectively.
Here’s some thoughts on MLS is Back’s final doubleheader:
Don’t overthink it
There’s this persistent trope across sports journalism: The idea that teams need an alpha of sorts, a go-to star, often dubbed “The Guy” (that gendered term speaks to the trade’s chauvinistic traditions, alas). When you really need a play, the reasoning goes, the list of players who can be reliably trusted to deliver is a short one. These are generalizations, but they’re a decent starting point.
With apologies to the ageless and essential Diego Chara, Diego Valeri has been that figure for the Timbers for much of their MLS existence, and he has an MLS MVP award, four All-Star nods, three MLS Best XI nominations and the 2015 MLS Cup MVP to show. San Valeri is 34 now, though, and his minutes often need to be managed as a result. He came off the bench to lead Portland’s final push past NYC, exploiting tired defenders to notch the game-winner and making coach Giovanni Savarese look smart.
Sebastian Blanco is the straw that stirs PTFC nowadays, though. He’s the one they can rarely afford to leave out of the XI, and he’s the one that most often raises his level when the attack needs inspiration. He showed elite instinct and composure in scoring Portland’s opening goal and later tossed in an assist for good measure, a reminder of his comfort in big moments and another plank in his candidacy for tournament MVP.
“Seba’s been great in this tournament, we know what we have in him,” said Savarese. “He shows that every single practice, every single day when he's with us. This year his mind is clear; he's doing an excellent job and you need players like him … that can make a difference when they play, because those are the moments that, when those players make these situations and these type of goals, and plays, that is when the team definitely achieves what we have achieved today.”
It’s not quite right to say Blanco is Valeri’s successor, because he’s only two years younger than his good friend and they clearly enjoy playing together. Still, his continued reliability in big moments makes it easier for Valeri to age gracefully, and when the two are both on the pitch and in form, they can knit some lovely, lethal patterns of play.
In Thursday’s quarterfinal it was Philly’s Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie. On Friday Joao Moutinho made the difference for Orlando City. And Saturday brought standout work from Minnesota’s Hassani Dotson and Jacori Hayes.
Here we’re talking about young domestic players stepping up in a variety of circumstances (and yes, the Portuguese-born Moutinho counts, given his time in the NCAA system, arrival in MLS via the SuperDraft and apparent intention to make the United States his long-term home).
Hayes was a top performer in his first-ever start for the Loons, making light of his limited minutes to date with an engine-room display marked by intelligence and graft alike, complicating life for Jackson Yueill and Judson. Meanwhile the versatile Dotson added to his growing reputation with a quietly influential stint at right back with Romain Metanire sidelined by injury, first frustrating Vako, then Shea Salinas along the Loons’ right flank.
“Kid’s a good player and very difficult to play against, he's very stubborn, he's quick, he's athletic, and he doesn't give people the time, and he takes that individual battle personally, working against the wide guy,” said Heath of Dotson. “He completely dominated a really good player, and not only defensively, then he started to give us something going forward as well.
“So it's been a good night for the young boys.”
When Loons fly
Last year the Colorado Rapids were MLS’s set-piece masters, absolutely feasting on attacking restarts, and it seems Minnesota have grabbed that baton. Across the entire 2020 season – its first two weeks and MLS is Back – the Loons have scored eight goals on or immediately after set pieces; no one else in the league has netted more than five.
It was how they seized the critical early advantage against the Earthquakes on Saturday. Dotson pinged a delivery onto Jose Aja’s head after a half-cleared corner kick and the 6-foot-4 Uruguayan nodded the ball across the face of goal for Robin Lod’s simple tap-in, forcing the Quakes to chase the game the rest of the way.
“I said before the game I thought the first goal was going to be huge because they come into this game with a lot of momentum on the back of some really good performances,” noted Adrian Heath, praising the accurate deliveries of dead-ball specialist Jan Gregus, who, it should be noted, is missing his top target – Ike Opara – at MLS is Back. “If we put a good quality ball in the box, we have a lot of size.”
Inchy's past and present
Fair warning: Over the next few days you're going to hear an awful lot about MNUFC coach Adrian Heath's relationship with Orlando City in the run-up to his current club's matchup with his former one on Thursday (8 pm ET | ESPN2, ESPN Deportes; TSN, TVA Sports 2 in Canada). It's a rich theme to mine for content! Here's what "Inchy" said about it in his postgame press conference:
"Everybody knows my feelings towards Orlando City, you don't spend the time that I did there and not have an incredible fondness for the club. … We know we’ve got a really difficult task. I think Oscar [Pareja]’s had a great start with Orlando. They’ve got some good players. They’ve obviously got a real togetherness, you can see that. It’s going to be tough. But I also know that Oscar is wise enough and experienced enough to know that we ain’t coming in here and playing on the back foot. We’re going to be ready for the game."