Some have dubbed it the MLS is Back Tournament’s Group of Death, and it tried to live up to that moniker on Sunday.
Group D is taking shape after the Sporting KC-Minnesota United and Real Salt Lake-Colorado Rapids doubleheader. Just like I did on Saturday night for Group E, I’m taking a team-by-team look at what we’ve seen so far. Here’s the rundown.
In both his postgame press conference and his regrettably timed in-game TV interview, Rapids head coach Robin Fraser used the term “disappointed” several times, and it’s understandable. His side got outplayed and outworked in most areas by their Rocky Mountain Cup rivals and looked well off the pace they themselves set in their first two matches of the season back in the spring (both wins).
It was a rough night for their backline, center backs Lalas Abubakar and Drew Moor in particular, and with Auston Trusty and Danny Wilson on the bench, Fraser has options if he wants to change things up. Even so, I enjoyed their better moments of fluidity and creativity going forward – Younes Namli and Nicolas Benezet are so fun to watch on the ball and Kei Kamara will have better nights up top.
One huge element of their identity that went missing on Sunday: Attacking set pieces. For the past year or so the Mile High Club have been the most dangerous team in the league in this department, but RSL gave them relatively few chances to deliver a restart into the danger area, and the rest of Group D will surely notice:
Side note from the #RSLvCOL match - Colorado have been probably the best set-piece team in the league over the past year but Salt Lake did a great job of limiting that danger with disciplined defending around the box. Here's the Opta map of the Rapids' fouls drawn. pic.twitter.com/AiAcUqSlR4— Charles Boehm (@cboehm) July 13, 2020
Strike a pose and smile, Loons – you’re the only team in MLS with three wins out of three in 2020. Yes, that’s a tricky stat considering it’s been four months since the second week of the regular season, but it applies nonetheless, and it tells us a little bit about this MNUFC side as well.
To be comprehensively outplayed by Kansas City over such long stretches and still walk away with all three points is probably the most resourceful achievement by any team over the tournament’s first five days. Doing so with the injury-plagued Kevin Molino as the protagonist makes it a feel-good story to boot.
“They were far and away the better team,” admitted coach Adrian Heath. “But we always looked dangerous when we started to put one or two passes together.”
Winning these kind of games is both a signpost and a building block for a team’s locker-room culture and the Loons who addressed the media after their dramatic comeback made sure to point out that they did so without several key figures: Ike Opara is sitting out MIB, Ozzie Alonso picked up a groin injury in the days leading up to this one and new striker Luis Amarilla suffered a similar soft-tissue issue in pregame warmups.
“This was a character win,” said Ethan Finlay. “We know we can play far better than that. But to deal with everything we've had to deal with for the last three months, losing one of our leaders in Ike, Ozzie days before the game. And then our striker. It doesn't probably get more dire than that. But this group never gave in and played to the very end.”
Real Salt Lake
Some pegged the Utahns as the underdogs of this group and Freddy Juarez’s squad must’ve taken that to heart, because their dispatching of the Rapids was one of the more emphatic displays at MIB thus far. There was hunger, cohesion, bite, well-versed patterns of play, the clear identity that this club laid down long ago shining through despite the long layoff and limited training time. They've beaten Colorado four games running:
Classic C.Rapids pic.twitter.com/xbzUThl6TV— Real Salt Lake (@realsaltlake) July 13, 2020
It’s also a deep group, and that translates to much more than just lineup options for the coaching staff. It fosters a day-to-day intensity as players compete for minutes. Juarez made it sound like RSL have been beating one another’s brains out on the training ground:
“We had some very, very combative and close-matched games within our intrasquads and anything success[ful] that we got today was from the sparring team that we have,” he said. “Guys were just pushing the envelope and pushing the pace. I think that's what prepared us the best.”
They’ll have to ride the razor’s edge with that intensity; central midfielder Everton Luiz was man of the match but could well have gotten an early shower for hacking down Benezet shortly after the hour mark.
Sporting Kansas City
The Midwesterners have ample reason to be kicking themselves after blowing a late lead that should’ve been twice or three times as large as it was. It’s all well and good to dominate the run of play but as the hoary old adage says, the soccer gods viciously punish wastefulness in front of goal.
And the Tim Melia DOGSO red card was a triple whammy, because not only did it leave them shorthanded and force a goalkeeper change that disrupted Peter Vermes’ substitution plans, itt also exposed Richard Sanchez’s discomfort with distribution in that difficult situation, which frittered away plenty of possession and allowed Minnesota to keep running down Sporting’s throat.
But there’s a silver lining, and it’s a significant one. Showcase offseason acquisition Alan Pulido was the game’s most impressive individual performer by some margin, skinning defenders at will, playing in his teammates and providing a valuable reference point as the spearhead of the attack.
He’s a modern No. 9 of the highest order and he might turn out to be one of the top talents at MIB. Capping SKC’s generally sturdy collective foundation with an attacker of that caliber can only lead to good things for them sooner rathr than later.