Alan Pulido - Sporting KC - close up - crop only

My four MLS is Back Tournament dark horses | Andrew Wiebe

On a recent edition of Extratime, Charlie Davies took issue with my early claim that FC Dallas were an MLS is Back Tournament dark horse. Of course, FC Dallas have since been withdrawn from the tournament due to the impact of positive COVID-19 tests. 

And I quote…

“They can’t be a dark horse. You’re naming all these players that can make a difference. A dark horse team is a team that’s expected to finish fourth, maybe third in the group and just get out. That’s a dark horse team, a team that’s not expected to get out of the group.”

I’d quibble with Charlie’s definition. To me, a dark horse is a team not among the widely agreed on “favorites,” a team a neutral wouldn’t predict to win unless they were trying to be too clever for their own good.

For the purposes of this column, a dark horse must have missed the playoffs in 2019. That’s it. Simple criteria are the best criteria. Here are four dark horses, from most likely to actually win the whole thing to the best chance of playing more than three games when most pegged them for an early exit.

Sporting KC

Making the case: Losing Felipe Gutierrez to knee surgery is a big blow, but there’s plenty of quality to step into the Chilean’s stead. Alan Pulido was supposed to the final piece, and he may well be full of goals given his season-opening form. Between Johnny Russell, Gerso Fernandes, Gadi Kinda, Khiry Shelton and Daniel Salloi, there are chance creators and goalscorers on the wing, too.

Want to win this thing? You gotta get goals from more than one source. Sporting have plenty of sources, even without Gutierrez. Plus, they’ve got a massive chip on their shoulder from 2019. Perhaps most importantly, I trust Peter Vermes to suss out every possible scenario and potential advantage. No stone will be left unturned, but that may not matter if...

Stumbling block: The backline. I may be wrong, but I feel comfortable saying last year’s defensive record was a blip. Still, it was a big blip. FC Cincinnati set a record for defensive futility (75 goals allowed) in 2019, and Kansas City’s normally respectable and often stellar side was just eight goals back of that total, second worst in MLS. Vermes added a couple central defenders in the offseason, but they got a grand total of two games to get on the same page before the season hit the brakes.

Columbus Crew SC

Lucas Zelarayan is off to a solid start to his Crew SC career | USA Today Sports Images

Making the case: This is not the same Crew team that finished 2019 seven points off the final playoff spot. It’s not the team that lost just twice in their final 13 games. They’re much better than that thanks to arguably the best winter transfer window in the league. Lucas Zelarayan. Darlington Nagbe. Vito Wormgoor. Fanendo Adi for a bag of balls. Getting Milton Valenzuela back from ACL surgery is like signing the best left back in MLS, too.

What I trust most is their ability to keep the ball — that Orlando heat is gonna be no joke, better to be the team that doesn’t have to run for more than half the game — and they’ve got a good mix of veterans and hungry young players. There’s balance on each line. They’ve got winners. They’ve got a chance.

Stumbling block: Reps. Zelarayan and Nagbe don’t have much in terms of meaningful experience with each other or their teammates. Same goes for the potential partnership between Wormgoor and Jonathan Mensah. Can they pick up where they left off in March? Are Caleb Porter’s ideas about how he wants to play somewhat ingrained or still a work in progress?

Colorado Rapids

Making the case: This tournament is going to be about who can make the best out of conditions that are, to put it lightly, less than ideal. This Rapids group already know they can do that. Last year was a lesson in belief and the strength of a group that’s since been reinforced by Younes Namli, Nicolas Benezet, Drew Moor and Auston Trusty.

That attack is stacked with players who do it in different way, but seem to fit well together. When in doubt, let Jack Price whip it in and tell Kei Kamara to go get it. Set pieces are a damn good differentiator, and nobody scores from dead balls more than the Rapids. In Robin Fraser, I trust.

Stumbling block: The depth of their group. There’s no clear favorite in Group D, but that may mean the third-place team struggles to get the points needed to move on. I don’t think this squad has an obvious weakness. They just aren’t a guarantee to get it done. Nobody is, though.

Houston Dynamo

Making the case: This one is for Charlie, who keeps going back to the Dynamo as a dark horse on Extratime. I’m starting to get it, even if Houston feel like the biggest longshot of this group. If the idea is to do one thing well, then it’s time for Tab Ramos to keep the back eight organized and unleash Alberth Elis, Mauro Manotas and Darwin Quintero on the counterattack.

They could chew some teams up, but first they’ll have to get out of a stacked Group F (LAFC, Galaxy, Timbers). Another plus is the Central Florida humidity and heat shouldn’t be as big of an issue for the Dynamo as it will be for teams who are accustomed to colder climes. That’s Houston’s norm, and their historic home record reflects it.

Stumbling block: Can they be organized enough to provide the foundation on which the counter will either thrive or fail? Can’t give up cheap goals and sneak out of the group, and they aren’t exactly proven as a defensive unit. Can Elis provide consistent final product? Big question marks.

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