*Note: This post was edited by ColumbusCrewSC.com and provided by MLSsoccer.com
The only nine-point team in the MLS is Back Tournament faces Minnesota United FC on Tuesday, July 28 in the Round of 16.
Even without 2019 MLS Defender of the Year, Ike Opara, Minnesota has gone unbeaten (1-0-2) in the tournament, while the team ranks third overall in MLS in goals (12) and shot conversion rate (23.08 percent).
After the Loons' recent 2-2 draw vs. Colorado, Minnesota Head Coach Adrian Heath relayed the tongue-in-cheek sentiment that no one is giving Minnesota much of a chance.
“Well, we probably won’t turn up because everybody has crowned them champions already, so, maybe we’ll give it to them. It’s another team that we have to face. And we’ll be ready. I’ve felt as though we’ve gotten better each game. I thought we were better tonight. And, I think we’ll be better for tonight’s performance. And our energy levels were better. And, I’m really looking forward to the game.”
As for the Crew, of course, injuries have been part of the equation, but the midfield trio of Lucas Zelarayan, Darlington Nagbe, and Artur is still very much intact, in addition to Gyasi Zardes up top and a backline that has shown the ability to swap players in and out with three different starting backlines in the tournament.
The two sides have met just three times prior, with Columbus holding a slight 2W-0D-1L advantage over the Loons in regular-season play. However, Minnesota won the most recent meeting, on May 19, 2019, with former Crew winger Ethan Finlay getting the game-winner. The two squads have never met in postseason or Open Cup play.
Ahead of Tuesday's match, here's a roundup of what the pundits are saying from MLSsoccer.com:
The best team in the tournament so far will meet one of 2019’s most improved outfits in what should prove to be an intriguing matchup between two teams that will feel like they have a real shot at the title. The so-far-dominant Crew (4W-0L-1D) should be favorites, but Adrian Heath’s Minnesota (3W-0L-2D) have shown time and again over the last year that they are not to be counted out.
Columbus: The Crew have played pretty passing soccer, comfortably dispatched two Eastern Conference powers (albeit ones that seem to be sliding in 2020) and put up the tournament’s joint-largest margin of victory to date, all while rotating their squad. There have been a few injury questions in the team, but the star trio of Darlington Nagbe, Lucas Zelarayan and Gyasi Zardes are all playing at a high level and do not seem ready to let up anytime soon.
Minnesota: The Loons, who launched themselves into the league’s upper echelon in 2019 but are without reigning Defender of the Year Ike Opara for the MLS is Back Tournament, have had a solid, if not fully convincing showing in Orlando so far. They posted a memorable comeback win in their opener against Sporting Kansas City, which ultimately proved crucial to their advancement, and looked good value for the draws they earned in their final two group games. They may need to hit another gear to beat Columbus, though.
Series History: The two teams have met just three times prior, with Columbus holding a slight 2W-0D-1L advantage over their Western Conference opponents in MLS play. However, the Loons won their most recent meeting, on May 19, 2019, with none other than former Crew winger Ethan Finlay, also a two-goal scorer against Colorado on Wednesday night, getting the winner. The two squads have never met in postseason or Open Cup play.
What Columbus will do: The Crew's brand of soccer thus far in 2020 is very similar to Toronto's, in that the prime goal of their possession is to suck the opponents upfield, get them compressed and committed to one particular zone, then play through them when "commitment" turns into "over-commitment." As so:
Columbus have three technical midfielders and the league's most technical pair of fullbacks. They have center backs who can pass the ball, and they have wingers who are comfortable operating inside or out wide. And they have a center forward whose link play, while far from elite, has become very underrated.
And so, of course, the foundation should be what they do with the ball. But what's set Columbus apart thus far in this tournament is how comfortable they've looked doing these relatively high-level things with the ball. The second half against Atlanta wasn't great, but the previous five halves? Best overall team in the tournament.
The Crew, playing out of their 4-2-3-1, have scored seven goals and conceded zero in three games. Yeah, they've got injuries starting to pile up a bit, but I'm not sure it's enough to derail them at this point, especially with Lucas Zelarayan playing as he has done.
What Minnesota will do: The Loons have been resolute at the back even without Ike Opara. I thought (as did most others) that missing 2019's Defender of the Year would doom them in this tournament, but that hasn't been the case. Jose Aja's done just enough, and the attack has found a way.
Kevin Molino, in particular, has been unplayable when healthy.
The problem is Molino can't stay healthy. He was subbed off at halftime in game 2 vs. RSL and then didn't play in the third game of the group stage for Minnesota. His injury's reportedly a hamstring strain, and he was reportedly a gametime decision on Wednesday, so hopefully that means he'll be good to go for the knockout round. If he's not, the Loons are an order of magnitude less dangerous.
But still very dangerous when right back Roman Metanire gets forward on the overlap, as he showed vs. Colorado! Metanire is one of the league's very best in that situation, and Finlay is excellent at finding space for one-time finishes.
The problem, though, is that without Opara Minnesota is very, very vulnerable if Metanire strays too far upfield. Jonathan Lewis terrorized the right side of the Minnesota defense on Wednesday, and I'm sure that's something Columbus noticed.
X-Factor: It might be Homegrown rookie No. 6 Seb Berhalter, who has done some Wil Trapp 2.0 stuff for Columbus throughout the group stage. I'm not sure he's going to play (my money's on Artur getting the start at CM), but when he's been on the field he's been dropping deep to split the center backs, then pushing the fullbacks forward to act as wingbacks with their starting points and hitting long diagonals.
This is a 2016-ish look that kind of disappeared over the past couple of years, but I welcome its return. Functionally it puts the opposing wingers in a bind: Do they stay with the fullbacks or press up against the Crew CBs? And if they pass off the Crew fullbacks to their own fullbacks, what happens when, say, Zelarayan makes a bursting, diagonal run out of midfield?
I love watching these sorts of tactical problems unfold.
For what it's worth, I do expect Minnesota to show up and I'm not crowning Columbus champions just yet. But yeah, they're the favorites in this game. It'll be up to the Loons to prove that assessment was mistaken.
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