MLS Is Back is down to its final eight contenders, with the quarterfinal field being filled out Tuesday night.
Three penalty shootouts rounded out the last eight teams standing, as the tournament lost its only 3-0-0 team from the group stage. The Columbus Crew had been a team on a mission in Orlando, but after it accomplished its chief objective, it's now on the outside looking in. Regardless, it'll feel good about its Disney World adventure, winning all of the games that count toward the regular-season standings. When the season resumes (continuation plan pending*), it'll be sitting atop the Supporters' Shield standings and the Eastern Conference table.
They will not be winning MLS Is Back, though.
That distinction–and the 2021 Concacaf Champions League berth that goes along with it–will go to one of the following eight teams, who will emerge as the big winner (not counting the viewers, who were treated to a lovely, transparent look at a VAR decision Tuesday night in a breakthrough for the fan-at-home experience). It's turned into a tournament for MLS's new generation. Six of the remaining eight teams have joined the league in the last 10 years, while only five of the league's 24 MLS Cup titles are represented by the last teams standing (San Jose and Sporting Kansas City each have two; Portland has one).
Here's how they all stack up entering the quarterfinals, which will be played across three consecutive days beginning on Thursday:
Group stage: 1-0-2
Round of 16: Beat Seattle, 4-1
Quarterfinal opponent: Orlando City (Friday, 7:30 p.m.)
Playing without the opted-out Carlos Vela and injured attacking cog Adama Diomande, LAFC thrashed the Sounders anyway to exact a measure of 2019 playoff revenge and eliminate the reigning MLS Cup champions. It's clear–and has been for some time–that LAFC is not just a one-man team, and, simply put, if LAFC is going to successfully press in the Orlando heat, during a tournament whose stakes, at this point, make for varying motivations, then it has as good a chance as anyone at outlasting the competition.
LAFC remains susceptible in the back if the press can be overcome, but it's also building momentum instead of peaking early, which, at a tournament, is everything. With a competition-best seven goals, Diego Rossi has taken the scoring burden that typically falls on Vela and has been a rock in the attack for Bob Bradley's side, while Bradley Wright-Phillips' rejuvenation makes his being cast aside by the Red Bulls look more questionable by the day. Orlando is officially on notice.
2. San Jose Earthquakes
Group stage: 2-0-1
Round of 16: Beat Real Salt Lake, 5-2
Quarterfinal opponent: Minnesota United (Saturday, 8 p.m.)
Save for San Jose's 0-0 opener against Seattle, there hasn't been a more entertaining thrill ride at Disney. The Earthquakes have taken part in two seven-goal showstoppers, 37-year-old Chris Wondolowski somehow keeps finding new ways to score (his knockout stage goals, which don't count toward regular-season totals and his all-time record, do count toward his all-competitions club career tally, which now stands at 173, according to MLS) and San Jose genuinely carries itself like a cohesive group pulling in one direction. Matias Almeyda deserves continuous credit for altering the club's culture, and if there's a side you can bet on feverishly trying to win this thing, it's San Jose.
The quarterfinal vs. Minnesota is a rematch of a pre-pandemic game, which the Loons won handily, 5-2. Not that anything has changed in the world over the last four months.
3. Orlando City
Group stage: 2-0-1
Round of 16: Beat Montreal, 1-0
Quarterfinal opponent: LAFC (Friday, 7:30 p.m.)
Oscar Pareja's hands are all over Orlando City's transformation, with the club starting to show signs of a fluency that it hardly displayed with regularity in the previous five seasons. The de facto host club has been right at home thus far, though it will have to go the rest of the way without the injured Dom Dwyer. Luck of the bracket pits OCSC against the LAFC juggernaut, which will put the Lions' progress to the test.
4. Minnesota United
Group stage: 1-0-2
Round of 16: Tied Columbus 1-1 (won 5-3 in PKs)
Quarterfinal opponent: San Jose Earthquakes (Saturday, 8 p.m.)
It's a bit comical that Adrian Heath played the disrespect card entering a round-of-16 game in a tournament where there is ostensibly nothing different from finishing second or finishing 16th (aside from some pride and perhaps some extra prize money), yet the Loons boss is all in on the chip-on-the-shoulder factor. To his credit, it worked, as Minnesota gritted out a shootout win over the Crew despite Ike Opara's continued absence (though he loomed large on the video screens behind the goals Tuesday night), an injury to influential right back Romain Metanire and a boneheaded penalty that Jose Aja conceded late to give Columbus a lifeline.
If Metanire can't go Saturday night, that would mean the full right side of Minnesota's starting defense would be second-choice–and potentially a busy night between the sticks for goalkeeper Tyler Miller. Depending on what Ozzie Alonso, the great neutralizer, has left in the tank, this could be the end of the road for MNUFC. Precisely what Heath wants to hear.
5. Philadelphia Union
Group stage: 2-0-1
Round of 16: Beat New England, 1-0
Quarterfinal opponent: Sporting Kansas City (Thursday, 8 p.m.)
The closest Philly has come to a trophy was the 2015 U.S. Open Cup final, when it fell to Sporting KC in penalty kicks. It's fallen in two other USOC finals, including one in extra time, but the 7-6 PK shootout loss was the closest call. Sporting KC stands in the way of another accolade, with the Union arguably the best side remaining on their side of the bracket.
Prying European eyes will be on the potential midfield battle between Philly's Brenden Aaronson and Sporting KC's Gianluca Busio, with the two rising U.S. talents reportedly attracting plenty of overseas attention.
6. Portland Timbers
Group stage: 2-0-1
Round of 16: Tied FC Cincinnati 1-1 (won 4-2 in PKs)
Quarterfinal opponent: NYCFC (Saturday, 10:30 p.m.)
The Timbers may feel a bit fortunate to be where they are, despite topping a difficult group and having yet to lose in Florida. They benefited greatly Tuesday from Jurgen Locadia's late missed sitter, were given a reprieve after Steve Clark's head-scratching decision gifted FCC its equalizer from the penalty spot and could easily be on the outside looking in. Yet surviving and advancing is what knockout play is all about, and Portland can take comfort from getting goals in consecutive games from Jaroslaw Niezgoda, which adds another threat to the fold for Giovanni Savarese.
7. Sporting Kansas City
Group stage: 2-1-0
Round of 16: Tied Vancouver 0-0 (won 3-1 in PKs)
Quarterfinal opponent: Philadelphia Union (Thursday, 8 p.m.)
That Sporting KC labored against what was effectively a B-team Whitecaps side and prevailed largely thanks to Tim Melia's PK heroics doesn't inspire much faith. Yet the bracket is favorable, and its pedigree deeper into a tournament is greater than that of its opponent. In a knockout stage that has–save for LAFC, San Jose and NYCFC's wins–largely been decided by fine margins, having someone with the quality and finishing capability of an Alan Pulido could wind up being the difference.
Group stage: 1-2-0
Round of 16: Beat Toronto FC, 3-1
Quarterfinal opponent: Portland Timbers (Saturday, 10:30 p.m.)
NYCFC was not exactly deserving of a berth in the knockout stage, but it made the most of it, dominating Toronto and flashing glimpses of last season's regular-season success. Maxi Moralez, naturally, was at the heart of it, and if he's going to repeat his performance vs. TFC, then NYCFC could go on a run. That arguably the four toughest teams left are on the opposite side of the bracket is another stroke of luck for Ronny Deila's side.