The MLS Is Back Tournament has now moved from the Group Stage to the Round of 16, which means it's time to begin pondering which teams have the right stuff to reach the quarterfinals.
Picking MLS winners is never an easy task, and the vagaries of this unique event have only made it harder. Predicting who will advance to the elite eight is essentially a fool's game, but yours truly is always up to play one of those.
While the Group Stage offered more than a fair share of surprises, you will quickly detect that I'm thinking the Round of 16 will go much truer to form.
Orlando City vs. Montreal
Saturday, July 25 (8 pm ET | ESPN2, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN, TVAS in Canada)
The Lions are on one of the more solid runs in franchise history. From front to back, they're playing with a confidence and organization rarely seen in Orlando. The Impact rode a decidedly bumpier path to the knockouts, pulling a rabbit out of the hat in their group closer. Because their midfield looks more consistently proactive, I'm going with the tourney hosts to continue their fun run.
Prediction: Orlando City SC
Philadelphia vs. New England
Saturday, July 25 (10:30 pm ET | ESPN2, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN in Canada)
This might just be the closest call of the bunch. Boosted by stinginess at the back, neither team lost during the group stage. New England have the more explosive attack crew, even if they have yet to detonate in Orlando. However, I'm giving the Union edges in midfield and defense, and they also have a vintage Andre Blake back in goal. It's also worth noting that Philly have virtually owned the Revs in recent years (7-1-2 with a +16 goal differential). For all these reasons, Jim Curtin's boys are the call in what should be a tight contest.
Prediction: Philadelphia Union
Toronto FC vs. New York City FC
Sunday, July 26 (8:30 pm ET | FS1, TSN, TVA Sports)
If it was still 2019, this would be a monster match-up. It's not, and in 2020, NYCFC is a team trying to find itself. New coach Ronny Deila clearly hasn't learned from Dome Torrent's fiddly takeover mistakes and they're also unlikely to be equipped with a fully fit and firing Maxi Moralez, making this a real uphill battle against Alejandro Pozuelo and friends. The Cityzens certainly have the talent to top a well-drilled Toronto FC side, but I just can't see it happening under these circumstances.
Prediction: Toronto FC
Sporting KC vs. Vancouver
Sunday, July 26 (11 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes, TUDN, TSN, TVA Sports)
Even with a stoppage-time collapse in their tournament opener, Sporting KC more or less ended up steaming to the top of a tough group. After twice blowing a two-goal lead in their first group game, the Whitecaps looked dead in the water until getting Shazam-ed 27 minutes from a zero-point elimination. They're also 0-1-4 in their last five against Sporting KC, including a 3-1 home defeat back in March. Never let it be said that I can't take a hint. Sporting KC should cruise.
Prediction: Sporting KC
San Jose vs. Real Salt Lake
Monday, July 27 (8:30 pm ET | FS1, FOX Deportes, TSN, TVA Sports)
A lot of folks have praised both of these teams for their play down in Orlando. To me, they've each played to the level of competition, hoarding points against weaker foes while surrendering them to better opposition. Though there are questions about Real Salt Lake's ability to handle the Earthquakes' man-marking for 90 minutes, I'm going with the lower seed in this one (though I'd definitely refrain from calling it an upset).
Prediction: Real Salt Lake
Seattle vs. LAFC
Monday, July 27 (11 pm ET | FS1, TUDN, UniMas, Fox Deportes in US; TSN in Canada)
It's a shame that we must lose one of these clubs so early, even if neither is in full 2020 flight yet. Seattle's new central defense pairing is still trying to settle in, which makes it fortunate for them that Carlos Vela isn't around for this one. Bob Bradley's side also has issues in defense at the moment, which gives this tilt the look of an impending barnburner shootout. The game looks to be another Round of 16 toss-up, but my gut tells me that knockout master Stefan Frei will be the difference-maker in sending LAFC home this time.
Columbus vs. Minnesota United
Tuesday, July 28 (8 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN in Canada)
If the Loons had Ike Opara available, this might be the game of the round. Even without him, they are plucky enough to slow the Crew's roll. In the end, though, I can't pick against Columbus here. The midfield trio of Artur, Darlington "What's an incomplete pass?" Nagbe and Lucas Zelarayan is wearing teams out in muggy central Florida, and Caleb Porter has an array of hot attack hands that make wilting teams pay.
Prediction: Columbus Crew SC
Portland vs. FC Cincinnati
Tuesday, July 28 (10:30 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN in Canada)
The Timbers winning Group F qualifies as a mild upset, but they take a back seat in the surprise department to Jaap Stam's boys. No doubt about it, it's great to see FC Cincinnati enjoying some success under their new coach (two straight shutout victories! Huzzah!). That said, I'm banking on Portland's match-winners in attack to carry them through to the quarters.
Prediction: Portland Timbers