Forty-seven teams entered, now just eight remain.
We’re getting closer and closer to crunch time in this year’s expanded Leagues Cup tournament, with four quarterfinal matchups kicking off Friday. There are plenty of strong sides remaining – six hail from MLS and a pair are still pushing from Liga MX – but only a few are favorites.
Predicting the title winner of any knockout tournament is already hard enough, given they inherently encourage parity and chaos. Predicting the 2023 Leagues Cup winner is even more difficult, given that it’s never existed in this format.
So instead of simply picking the eventual victor, I’m giving myself three bites at the apple. Let’s dive into which three MLS teams are best equipped to wade through the final rounds and emerge victorious.
Look, I know you expected Inter Miami to be the first team on this list…and you were right! Congratulations. They’re a natural title contender in every competition at this point, thanks to the fact they had the greatest summer transfer window in MLS history. Miami added at least four starters, and three of those starters are Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba.
Not bad, right?
Even when they’re on the brink of defeat, like in their Round-of-16 clash with FC Dallas, Messi’s left foot rescues them. In the attack, Tata Martino’s fluid 4-3-3 shape has worked quite well (as if you could find an attacking alignment with Messi in it that doesn’t work well), with Messi nominally on the right wing while Dixon Arroyo stays deeper on the right side of midfield to provide stability and defensive cover.
Defending Inter Miami feels a bit like trying to plug leaks on a sinking boat. Every time you plug one – phew, we slowed Messi down and forced him to pass the ball off to a teammate – a new one breaks open – Busquets just split two lines with one pass. There’s a reason why Miami have the second-most goals in Leagues Cup right now (13, one behind Toluca’s 14).
Now, for all of Miami’s good attacking play, they’re still not a shoe-in for the Leagues Cup crown. Defensively, they’re vulnerable.
All of Inter Miami’s stars are on the wrong side of 30 and Martino wants to push numbers forward, which can cause real issues for them in defensive transition. Dallas scored two goals on the break against Miami in the Round of 16, while Orlando City SC and Atlanta United both found at least momentary joy with quick transition attacks in the group stage. Even when Miami settle into their 4-4-2 block, they’re behind the eight-ball. Messi and Josef Martínez don’t apply any real defensive pressure to the opposition, which affords teams time to think through every action in the final third.
In the clip down below, you can see what happens when Miami gift their opponents too much time and space in the final third.
Are Inter Miami favorites? With their star-studded squad and elite attack, absolutely. But are they flawless? Absolutely not.
Taking full advantage of their group-stage bye, LAFC came into Leagues Cup well-rested and with a point to prove.
They smashed Liga MX’s Juárez 7-1 in the Round of 32 before toppling Real Salt Lake (a team that’s been making a real push in recent weeks) 4-0 in the Round of 16. They came up short in the Concacaf Champions League final vs. Club León earlier this year, but Steve Cherundolo’s team is clearly out for blood here.
When you even so much as glance at their squad, it’s easy to see why LAFC are in the favorites conversation for every competition in this region. They’re stacked. Looking specifically at the attack, they have a trio of high-level flexible, skillful attackers in Dénis Bouanga, Carlos Vela (if he’s healthy) and Stipe Biuk who can operate on either wing. With 19-year-old multi-national Nathan Ordaz doing an incredible job of keeping new striker signing Mario González’s seat warm until his visa situation is sorted out, they even have a reliable No. 9 option. That’s something Cherundolo and Co. have missed since Cristian Arango departed in the offseason.
José Cifuentes’ recent move to Rangers takes a key contributor out of midfield, but offseason addition Mateusz Bogusz looks more comfortable as a free No. 8 than he ever did as a winger for LAFC. The club believes in newcomer Filip Krastev as well.
With a supremely gifted squad playing some lovely soccer and a talent advantage in most games, things look better now than they did at any point earlier this year for LAFC. There’s just one problem: Monterrey. LAFC face the Liga MX giants in the quarterfinals and, though they’ll have home-field-ish advantage at the Rose Bowl, Monterrey will be their stiffest test yet. Fernando Ortiz’s team is filled with Mexican internationals and have already pushed past RSL, the Seattle Sounders, the Portland Timbers and Tigres.
Taking down Monterrey won’t be an easy task. But if they can sneak into the semifinals, LAFC will have every chance to lift a trophy.
Sam Surridge is here, folks, and he didn’t waste any time making a first impression.
Making his Nashville SC debut off the bench in the second half against Club América on Tuesday night, Surridge busted a gut to score a 99th-minute equalizer to send their Round-of-16 game into penalty kicks. In many ways, Surridge both started and ended the sequence, playing a clipped ball into Dax McCarty’s feet to open up lanes to play forward before motoring into the box, finding a pocket of space and heading an assist from Hany Mukhtar into the back of the net.
Nashville fans, this is exactly how general manager Mike Jacobs and head coach Gary Smith drew it up when they signed Surridge from Nottingham Forest last month. With Surridge on the field, opposing defenses can’t afford to just focus on Mukhtar. Club América fell into that trap on the above goal, tracking the run of last year’s Landon Donovan MLS MVP but not recognizing Surridge’s move into the box until it was too late.
Things haven’t been easy for Nashville in the knockout rounds – their Round-of-32 matchup with FC Cincinnati went to penalties, as did their Round-of-16 meeting with Club América – but they’ve unlocked a new level with Surridge in the team.
Minnesota United FC won’t be a push-over in the quarterfinals, especially not with Bongi Hlongwane in the form of his life. But if Gary Smith’s team can continue to prioritize compact defending and quick transition attacks through their pair of attacking stars (that felt strange to write!), they will be extraordinarily difficult to stop.