MLS Knockout Stage Breakdown

By: Christopher Smith & Rex Eastwood

The MLS is Back Tournament has been raging these past few weeks. Hopefully, your team has done enough to get to the Round of 16. Just like the 2019 MLS Playoff, Rex and I will be breaking down each match and letting you know who we think will be advancing onto the next round of the knockout stage. Over four days of playoff-style soccer, the top two teams of every group alongside the best third-place teams will be battling it out for a chance at the prize money and a slot in the CONCACAF Champions League next year.

Philadelphia VS New England Revolution – July 25th

Chris’s Pick: Philadelphia Union

Two great sides will be facing each other in the first round of elimination games. The Philadelphia Union will be against the Revs. The Union have been impressive during the group stage. Their first matchup was against NYCFC, who arguably didn’t show up to the tournament, and it was a tough match until they netted their lone goal in the 63rd minute. While the Union have been impressive in their attack, their defense hasn’t been as good. Besides their last match against Orlando, the Union allowed more shots on goal than shots they’ve  put on net against their opponents. This will need to be fixed since the Revs, at times, had a decent attack. While they drew twice against DC and Toronto, they clearly weren’t playing their best soccer. If New England can figure it out on the attacking/finishing front, they will give the Union something to think about. While the Union have the attacking power and the defensive ability to keep New England in check, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Revs bring it to PKs. I’ll go with the better side with the Union in this one. 

Rex’s Pick: Union 3-1

There is a slight cause for concern with the Union against the Revs. Philly scraped their way through the group with no convincing win. This was due to a lack of creating quality or dangerous chances. Only Vancouver had a worse expected goals (xG) than Philly. Facing the Revs, chances are there if the Union can break down the midfield and put the pressure on the backline. NE’s backline has looked the most suspect on a counterattack. This should play in favor of Philly, who have laid off the press slightly in Orlando, but still created a highlight reel goal from end line to end line on the counter.

If you enjoy a goalkeeper battle, two of the best from the tourney will be in net late Saturday with Matt Turner and Andre Blake. Turner may be more consistent overall; however, Blake has been tested more in Orlando. The Union have the third worst expected goals allowed (xGA) of 4.4 but only 2 have found the back of the net. As long as Blake does not have one of his mental mistakes matches, the Union should keep the Revs to one goal or less. Neither team are possession heavy so there is a potential for an open and free flowing match. If this is the case, the midfield battle will determine the winner. Charles Gil and Gustavo Bou versus Alejandro Bedoya, Jamiro Monteiro and Brenden Aaronson will be a back and forth contest.

Orlando City SC VS Montreal Impact – July 25th

Chris’s Pick: Orlando City SC

One of the biggest surprises of the tournament is how well Orlando City has played. This Orlando team isn’t the same as the past few years. Rightfully so, they were able to beat Inter Miami but no one thought that they’d be able to put a black eye on NYCFC. This team has shocked the world and everyone will now be looking at them to see whether or not they can keep this kind of play up during the knockout stage. Montreal somehow made it into the knockout rounds by only winning once against a bad DC United team and lost both of their first two matches. This Montreal team is not good and will be looking to turn it around against a team that has all the pressure on them. One fact to note is that Orlando has never won a game against Montreal and this could very well be their first match. I’m rolling with the hot hand to advance in this round.

Rex’s Pick: Montreal 2-1

Taking a shot with the underdog here when all signs point to Orlando City. The “Home” team has finally shown the quality that they have in the roster. Chris Mueller and Nani have each been a threat in the attacking third in the group stage. Orlando have been throwing numbers forward on their attack, adding to the options for Nani to find a finisher.  A reason for the sudden jump in quality could be from the sturdiness in goal, finally, with Designated Player, Pedro Gallese. Yet, I believe their run comes to an end facing the Impact.

The formation that Thierry Henry decides to utilize could be the main factor. Whichever formation he decides, they should dominate the possession which could trip up Orlando. In Orlando’s group stage, they won the possession battle. This would be the first time since restart Orlando  would be behind the ball. Bojan Krkic has yet to come alive in the tourney and this will be the match. I am not sold yet on Orlando’s center mids and believe Montreal can expose them for what they’re worth. The link ups between Taider, Urruti, Piette and Krkic will give Orlando a look they haven’t seen yet and should find themselves with multiple chances on net. 

Toronto FC VS NYCFC– July 26th

Chris’s Pick: Toronto FC

Somehow NYCFC has made it into the round of 16. The worst good team I’ve seen in quite some time. After they went up against Philadelphia and lost, they lost any semblance of interest in this tournament. Their lone win was against a bad Inter Miami squad, and it wasn’t all that convincing of a win. The lack of care could change now that they are in the Round of 16 but I can’t see that happening. Something is going on with NYCFC and it could very well be caused by their new manager. Toronto is too good of a team behind the attacking threat of Ayo Akinola and Jozy Altidore for them to lose. It’s going to be great seeing these two destroy that NYCFC defense. 

Rex’s Pick: Toronto 3-0

The one team NYCFC did not want to face is Toronto. The Reds should control this matchup and play any style they want. NYCFC has continued to look like a shell of themselves under Ronny Deila. If NYCFC got dominated against Orlando, TFC can run laps around them. Alejandro Pozuelo will control the middle of the pitch alongside Michael Bradley. By controlling the middle, they will have plenty of chances to find Pablo Piatti, Ayo Akinola and Jozy Altidore in optimal spaces to score or create. They have been doing this in the group stage shown by having the second highest xG behind LAFC. However, if NYCFC can find any semblance  of an offense, Toronto has been leaky in the back, conceding the second most xGA. Maxi Moralez could be the key to give NYCFC a fighting chance but I do not expect this one to be close. 

Sporting KC VS Vancouver Whitecaps FC– July 26th

Chris’s Pick: Sporting KC

Sporting KC are another team that I can’t believe actually made it to the knockout round. The Whitecaps came out of the gates swinging against San Jose only to lose it all. Their lone win is against my most hated squad, Chicago Fire. This Whitecaps team isn’t good on paper or on the field. Sporting KC has been kind of a bright spot for me as I didn’t expect them to do much in this tournament. This pick is merely based on the fact that KC is a better team and appear to actually want to try to win this tournament.  

Rex’s Pick: SKC 2-0

The Whitecaps have the worse expected goals differential (-3.8) by allowing the most xGA and the worse xG. Not a great sign facing SKC who have the second lowest xGA. I’ve been trying to find an angle where Vancouver advances and there isn’t much to feel confident in. Coaching, talent and depth are all heavily skewed in Kansas City’s favor. Peter Vermes is one of the top coaches in the MLS and should be able to rollout a formation to keep the Whitecaps on their heels. Vancouver will park the bus, give up possession and hope for a low scoring game where all they need is to finish one chance. Do you expect Vancouver to keep a clean sheet especially with Pulido in SKC’s lineup? Neither do I. 

San Jose Earthquakes VS Real Salt Lake– July 27th

Chris’s Pick: San Jose Earthquakes

San Jose has played as well as I expected them to. They’ve been able to score against the bad teams and were able to secure a draw against the reigning MLS champs, the Seattle Sounders. They started the tournament with some rust but after going down in the first half to the Whitecaps they turned up the heat scoring four. They also netted a couple against the Fire. San Jose looks to be getting into form while Real Salt Lake hasn’t shown much to impress me. They have netted two the whole tournament against a weak Rapids team and lost to rival Sporting Kansas City. I’m going to take a hot hand and go with the pressure that the Quakes will put on them. 

Rex’s Pick: RSL 1-0

This match has a significant contrast of styles. San Jose wants to play freely and have the ball flying around the pitch. Salt Lake prefers a slow, defensive heavy match. Which team will force their opponent to play their style? I believe that will be RSL since their defense is stronger than the Earthquakes attack. The quality in the back can contain Andrés Ríos and Chris Wondolowski. Two areas of concern that can limit RSL is Zac MacMath in net and who will score for them. MacMath is not a top ten keeper in the league and Salt Lake lacks a reliable goal scorer. Only two players have found the back of the net in their five matches thus far. As a better disciplined squad, they should be able to capitalize on one of San Jose’s mistakes and keep them quiet up top. Scoring first will be key and if RSL fall behind early, it could force them to change the game plan mid-match. 

Seattle Sounders VS LAFC– July 27th

Chris’s Pick: LAFC

This should be a good matchup on Monday. The reigning champs take on the favorite to win the tournament. Seattle hasn’t been good this tournament. In their first match, they couldn’t score if their lives depended upon it. Their loss to Chicago Fire showed how little this team seemed to care about the tournament and their shutout of Vancouver was just a good team against a really bad one. LAFC, on the other hand, has been going at it and trying to actually win this tournament and have looked in great form. Without Vela, they are still able to get it done on the field. This is a pretty even match on paper so I’ll make my pick on what we saw on the field. LAFC is the team to beat in this tournament and I don’t think Seattle cares enough or is in good enough form to get it done against the press of LAFC. 

Rex’s Pick: LAFC 3-2

This has the makings of a who can score matchup written all over it. Seattle may not want to play this style but LAFC should enforce their will. Jordan Morris and Nico Lodeiro will be the main focal point of attack, so it may come down to if the questionable backline of LAFC can limit them in dangerous areas. On the flipside, almost everyone is a threat for LAFC in the midfield or strikers. The Sounders can play sound team defense but there are too many players to key on. The best way to counteract this is to have long spells of possession limiting LAFC’s time with possession. Even if they can execute that, it only takes a small slip up for LAFC to bounce on them. I am not sold on the new pairing at center back from players departing or from injury for Seattle, so I am expecting a high paced and scoring match. 

Columbus Crew SC VS Minnesota United– July 28th

Chris’s Pick: Columbus Crew SC

Who would have thought that Columbus would come into Florida and set the place on fire? I surely didn’t. I knew that they would advance but I didn’t think they’d be this good. They shut out every single opponent in this tournament. The only team they didn’t score more than two against was against Atlanta United and the Crew had a depleted side in that match. I’m looking for them to roll over the Loons in this match. While the comeback win against Sporting KC was spectacular, they haven’t shown much to be excited about. I may still be hurt that they drew against Colorado where they could have won the match and gotten first. I’ll be glad when they get knocked in the first round. 

Rex’s Pick: Minnesota 2-1 

Does the ColumBUS stop here? Minnesota has a solid chance to derail the Crew and think this one takes more than the ninety minutes to decide. The Crew have looked phenomenal but that was against the weakest group, by far, in Orlando. Atlanta and Red Bulls are such a shell of themselves, which only made  Columbus look better. Facing a team with an identity will prove to be much tougher in the Loons. Minnesota will not want to get into a high scoring match so expect them to play controlled out of the back, not taking too many chances. Here I am backing another team with a consistent goal scorer in Orlando, but I think the hype is just too much with the Crew. 

Portland Timbers VS FC Cincinnati– July 28th

Chris’s Pick: Portland Timbers

This is an easy pick for me. While Cincinnati was able to secure six points against better teams, it wasn’t due to Cincinnati being a better side. It was more that Atlanta and the Red Bulls gave up and wanted to go home. Portland handled everyone easily except for LAFC. The Galaxy was a team on fire and not the good kind. Houston isn’t scaring anyone and a draw against LAFC is a good result for this team. Portland’s team is far more seasoned than Cincinnati and I’ll be rolling with them since Cincinnati hasn’t had a real challenge this whole tournament yet. 

Rex’s Pick: FC Cincy 2-1

This is the MLS and FC Cincy have finally arrived. Am I confident they can take down the Timbers? Hell no but let’s get a little crazy. The talent on the Timbers out classes Cincy by far but in a one game knockout, anything is possible. Jaap Stam seems to have found the smallest bit of rhythm in the final match after a terrible start against the Crew and a less than stellar match against ATL. Yuya Kubo is the key for them to have a consistent attack. The rest of the midfield is a bunch of question marks and Portland can expose them quickly. There is minimal confidence in this pick but hungry dogs run faster.
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