This is not the tactical preview! That is coming on Wednesday. This is just some light, fluffy fun as I try to de-clutter my brain on the heels of watching all 48 of these games stem-to-stern.
And now we're down to four. The semifinals of the MLS is Back Tournament take place Wednesday and Thursday, and that means by definition the only teams left are bona fide contenders. That includes the greatest underdog in the history of sport, Minnesota United! I'll let Alexi take it:
Congratulations to the underdog, plucky, upstart, Rodney Dangerfield, little-engine-that-could, Cinderella, Rocky, put-upon, disrespected, Rudy, punch above your weight, Bad News Bears of a club that is @MNUFC. Hollywood is calling. #SJvMIN #Loons— Alexi Lalas (@AlexiLalas) August 2, 2020
I'll put my hand up and say, 100%, that I didn't think they'd even get out of the group stage without Ike Opara. And I definitely thought they were done when Kevin Molino got hurt in the second group-stage game against Real Salt Lake. Goodbye offense, right? And then when Romain Metanire limped off against Columbus? No way. Absolutely no way.
Except they found a way. And I guess that means I'm answering the "why Minnesota United will win" question as part of the intro to this column: They just keep finding a way. Columbus were playing beautiful soccer by running everything through Darlington Nagbe, so Adrian Heath sicced Hassani Dotson on him and destroyed everything up the middle. San Jose were man-marking everyone with border collie-on-uppers energy, so Heath blitzed 'em with a high press then slaughtered them on the counter. No Ike? No problem. No Romain? No problem. No Kevin? No problem.
Sporting, Columbus and (eventually) San Jose were all trendy picks to win this thing at one time or another. The Loons beat 'em all.
Pick against them at your own peril.
Why they'll lose: I'm sorry, but at some point the injuries have to add up and at some point their complete and unfailing set-piece dominance is going to, you know, fail, right?
Minnesota have been stunning on restarts. But if you don't give them anything in those situations and you don't shoot yourself in the foot a la Quakes (or Sporting)-style, they don't have a lot of ways to hurt you.
Why Orlando City can win: By and large they've played some of the prettiest, most effective and mistake-free soccer in the league over the past month. Inter Miami outplayed them for about a half-hour in Game 1 of the group stage, but since then nobody's really gotten the better of the Lions for an extended period, a list of opponents that includes fellow semifinalist Philly (Andre Blake had to stand on his head in that one).
They've also game-planned for specific opponents as well as anybody in the Tournament:
Folks have wanted to galaxy-brain this, but the simple fact is that no field player has had a greater impact on this Tournament than the veteran Portuguese winger. In Game 1 he scored the late winner for Orlando. In Game 3 he provided the assist on the late equalizer. In Game 4 he created the game-winner. In Game 5 he assisted the late equalizer, and then converted the shootout-winning PK for Orlando to advance.
You pay your DPs to be match-winners. Nani wasn't last summer, but he sure as hell has been this year.
Why they'll lose: As well as the Lions have played, and as prolific as Nani's been as a set-up man, they've still not really found their range in front of net. If you leave goals on the table in a knockout game, you're probably going to have a really bad time.
There's a reason Orlando fans are all over social media talking about getting a DP center forward.
Why the Philadelphia Union can win: Nobody in this tournament has been more outstanding or more valuable than Blake, who has logged the performance of his life game after game after game. The Union don't even sniff the Round of 16, let alone the semis, without a superhuman performance from their No. 1.
So they just did the grit-and-grind thing through the first four games, riding Blake's hot streak, some timely goals from veterans and the ability to shape-shift at the 60th minute when bringing on Ilsinho (the classics never go out of style).
But then things suddenly changed, didn't they? In the quarterfinals Philly cried havoc and let slip the dogs of war for the final 20 minutes of the first half and just annihilated Sporting KC. This second goal in particular...
Add that to a playoff-blooded team that's proved its ability to grind out results they shouldn't, and ... why not?
Why they'll lose: The Union haven't been playing bad soccer by any stretch, but you'll see above that I sorta made the point that they've only actually looked good for about 20 minutes out of 450. That's not a great hit rate! They need to play good longer.
If you want a specific thing that's hurting them, it's that they're still not advancing smoothly into the attacking third. They've been alright, but they clearly miss Haris Medunjanin.
Why the Portland Timbers can win: Portland went shopping this offseason and seem to have done pretty well. None of the new signings have set the league on fire (though Jaroslaw Niezgoda seems to be warming up), but they've all been useful, and when you pile that on top of the development of Jeremy Ebobisse (expected) and Eryk Williamson (unexpected and awesome), suddenly the Timbers don't just have "depth." They have game-changing, match-winning depth in a way that they've never, ever come close to in their MLS past.
Tonight was the first time in the 332 MLS (regular season/playoffs/MIB) matches they have played as a team that the Timbers have had two subs score in the same match. #RCTID— Mike Donovan (@TheMikeDonovan) August 2, 2020
If Ilsinho is terrifying off the bench, what is Diego Valeri? I still don't love Ebobisse on the wing, but it's impossible to ignore the fact that when he's played out there, Niezgoda's suddenly had all kinds of room to go against the center backs.
They've repeatedly worn teams down and then either come back into the game or just blown 'em out over the final 30 minutes. They have a come-from-behind draw against LAFC (last year's Supporters' Shield winners) and a come-from-behind, dominant win over NYCFC (last year's Shield runner-up). That's almost 140 points worth of opposition the Timbers are picking out of their cleats.
Why they'll lose: Even with their fullbacks playing much more conservatively than they did in 2019, the Timbers have still looked vulnerable and downright rickety at times at center back. It's not clear that they can scramble all that well, and one thing the other three remaining teams will absolutely do is make you scramble.