Leagues Cup continues on Tuesday
The semifinals are set for Tuesday. Philadelphia host Inter Miami at 7 pm ET while Monterrey take on Nashville at 9:30 pm ET. Both games are on MLS Season Pass on Apple TV.
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I know it’s hard to believe, but we still have about 3/10ths of an MLS season left to play. After a month of Leagues Cup, it might feel a bit surreal to get back on a typical schedule. But the timing of the tournament – thrown in right at the end of the transfer window – means some teams have been able to have a bit of a mini-preseason as they prepare for the final stretch. It’s also meant some teams have been able to find a bit of momentum they otherwise may not have found without the excitement of the tournament.
Post-Leagues Cup MLS is going to feel like a changed league. I figured we’d take a quiet Sunday to look at which teams seem to have taken the last few weeks to change for the better.
Although, not every team should be feeling good after the Leagues Cup/transfer window stretch here. We’ll get to them tomorrow. For now though, here’s whose stock is rising.
The Loons were unceremoniously booted out of the tournament the other night. But the run they went on to get to the quarterfinals felt like an indication things were truly starting to click in Minnesota. Like always for Minnesota United, it comes down to this: When Bebelo Reynoso is clicking with the people around him, Minnesota are one of the most dangerous teams in the league.
Reynoso dished out six assists over the course of Minnesota’s Leagues Cup run, which led to Bogokuhle Hlongwane putting up an Everyone But Messi-best seven goals. It’s easier said than done to decide: “Well, just keep doing that and they’ll be fine!” But it does kind of feel like a sign the Loons are up for a fight down the stretch here.
They’ll need to be. They’re one point below the playoff line with 12 games remaining. They’re also just five points out of fifth place. The West is weird. But the Loons have the most momentum out of any team coming out of the tournament. Well, other than…
Yeah, ok, kind of seems like they’re a bit jinxed when it comes to taking on Liga MX’s biggest clubs in major tournaments. But I’m looking up and down the MLS standings and I don’t see Monterrey, Tigres or León anywhere in the Western Conference.
Against more standard opponents in the tournament, LAFC looked vicious again. Like they had their legs under them after taking a nice nap. They eviscerated Juárez, pummeled RSL and, for about 70 minutes against Monterrey, looked like the better team. That should terrify the rest of the West. Especially any teams in the upper tier that had aspirations of holding off or catching up to LAFC for the top spot in the conference.
Nashville’s Leagues Cup run isn’t over yet, but it’s fair to say they’ve set themselves up for a big final stretch. That’s not just because they’ve made a deep run. I don’t think anyone is necessarily surprised they’ve found a way to advance in the knockout rounds. Their game model and defensive ability lend themselves pretty well to that kind of thing. It’s more that they seem to be entirely out of the slump they came into Leagues Cup with and, most importantly, already have proof of concept on new DP Sam Surridge.
Surridge’s minutes have been limited so far, so keep in mind, we are talking about a small sample size. But he’s scored twice in two appearances, and, despite question marks about his past goal-scoring record, it seems like Nashville has correctly identified the style of striker who will allow Hany Mukhtar to thrive and the team as a whole to improve. If that holds true, it’ll be a major step forward for a team that was already one of the best in the league.
Yeah, they went out on penalties a little earlier than expected, but the end of their transfer window has turned the Crew into one of the league’s most intriguing teams down the stretch. It’s certainly a risk to send away a streaky, but incredibly talented player like Lucas Zelarayan. But a great way to make up for that is bringing in best-XI caliber wingback Julian Gressel and former LAFC standout Diego Rossi. Throwing them in Wilfried Nancy’s system feels like an instant fit and the Crew might be even better down the stretch than they’ve already been. And they’ve already been the league’s most aesthetically pleasing team in attack. The Eastern Conference playoffs are going to be a bloodbath, y’all.
I’ll concede they seem to have improved as a soccer team over the last few weeks. Who can really say as to why?
However, it does seem like we’re about to find out exactly how much they’ve improved over the next week. As good as they’ve looked, they’ve faced: A Cruz Azul side that was looking for an excuse to fire their manager, an Atlanta United side that just really needed a break, a good Orlando City side (!), FC Dallas and Charlotte. They’ve played one road game and they were pushed to the brink.
That’s not to say they’re secretly bad or something. They’ve immediately turned into one of the best teams in the league. But heading to Philadelphia will provide their strongest litmus test yet. If they make it through that, it’s a likely final against Monterrey. Basically, we’re about to find out if they’ve become really good or if they’ve become the best team in the league overnight. Both scenarios feel plausible. And whatever the outcome is, it will tell us more about what their wild 12-game mad dash to make the playoffs will be like.
Good luck out there. Might as well put in a last-ditch effort.