Crew View: MLS Is Back knockout round preview

Chris DeVille
Columbus Crew midfielder Youness Mokhtar (front) and left back Milton Valenzuela (back) celebrate a first half goal in the Crew's 1-0 win over Atlanta United at the MLS is Back Tournament near Orlando, Florida.

The group stage of the MLS Is Back tournament in Orlando could not have gone much better for Columbus Crew SC. 

In the team's first match, Columbus obliterated in-state rival Cincinnati FC 4-0, highlighted by a spellbinding free kick golazo by Lucas Zelarayán. In the second, they thoroughly outplayed the New York Red Bulls en route to a 2-0 victory. By then, they’d already clinched passage into the knockout round, but they went ahead and beat Atlanta United 1-0 in the third game anyway. 

When all was said and done, not only did Columbus hold their Group E opponents scoreless, they were the only team in the tournament to win all three of their group-stage matches. “We’re very proud of that,” coach Caleb Porter said in an online press conference Sunday. 

Porter and his team are especially excited about those three wins because thegroup-stage matches counted toward the MLS regular season standings. The bravura tournament run, plus a win and a draw in March before COVID-19 upended American life, has the Crew atop the MLS standings. “That puts us in a great spot when we get back to the league,” Porter added — and, yes, MLS intends to resume its regular season schedule once the tournament wraps up Aug. 11. 

“Our number one priority is to win MLS Cup,” Porter said, referring to the season-ending championship game this fall, not to the ad hoc tournament the league threw together to jumpstart a pandemic-addled season. “We really, coming in, didn’t think about the tournament. We thought about the first three games.” 

Now that the knockout rounds are here, the team’s focus has shifted to MLS Is Back for now. Beyond bragging rights, the winner gets a cash prize and an invite to the CONCACAF Champions League, a tournament featuring the best clubs from across North and Central America and the Caribbean. “It’s been 10 years since we’ve played in that tournament, and we want to be back in it,” Zelarayán said Sunday via a translator. “It would gain us a lot of prestige.” 

In the round of 16, Columbus faces Minnesota United at 8 p.m. tonight (Tuesday, July 28) on ESPN. Minnesota sits just two spots behind Columbus in the overall league standings, partially thanks to two impressive lopsided victories in March. In the tournament, they posted a win and two draws to finish second in Group D. Former Crew star Ethan Finlay scored twice in their most recent match, a 2-2 draw against Colorado. 

Following that match, Minnesota coach Adrian Heath offered a wisecrack about the upcoming matchup with the Crew: “Well, we probably won't turn up because everybody's crowned them champions already, so we'll give it to them.” (In fact, as of Tuesday morning, Nate Silver’s statistical analysis company FiveThirtyEight bizarrely ranked Columbus sixth most likely to win the tournament despite putting up the most dominant performance so far.) 

“I know they’re a very good team,” Heath continued, no longer taking the piss. “They’re well-coached, they’ve got good individuals, spent a lot of money on a lot of players. And they've been very impressive. But I also know that Caleb will have enough respect for this group to know that it’s not going to be, probably, as easy as a lot of people think.” 

Porter wholeheartedly agreed Sunday, calling Minnesota the toughest team Columbus has faced so far. “I know Adrian very well,” Porter said. “He’s a great coach. He likes to sandbag his team a bit and take the attention off them and put it on the other team. The problem is everybody knows they have a good team.” 

If the Crew prevails Tuesday, they won’t have long to prepare for their quarterfinal match, which would be this Saturday, Aug. 1, against the winner of Monday’s Salt Lake-San Jose contest. Porter said balancing the need to field a competitive squad while keeping the team healthy is tricky, but because it’s win or go home, “We’re taking it one at a time and we’re throwing everything into this next game.” 

Still, he is keenly aware of the physical toll the tournament is taking on his guys. The charmed Columbus results so far have come despite a rapidly increasing injury list. “There’s gonna be some risk when you play guys,” Porter said. “We don’t want to win [the tournament] and then come home with nobody to play and lose the league.” 

Partially as a means of protecting the privacy of the player who tested positive for coronavirus early this month, Porter has been mum about the team’s health. He pointedly didn’t answer a question Sunday about the status of Youness Mokhtar, who scored the game-winner against Atlanta before leaving with an apparent muscle strain. Starting goalkeeper Eloy Room, who sat out the Atlanta match with a hamstring injury, may be limited this week as well. 

On the bright side for worn-out teams, MLS has dispensed with overtime periods for the tournament. Games tied at the end of regulation will proceed directly to a penalty kick shootout. “I think it’s a good decision to help the players,” said left back Milton Valenzuela through a translator. “While we work hard to be able to play extra time when needed, we also have to keep in mind that for four months we’ve been less active.” 

In contrast to some of his teammates, Valenzuela is healthier than he’s been in some time. The young Argentine defender missed 2019 with an ACL injury, and when he was finally ready to get back into regular rotation, the season went on hold. Now he’s in the mix again, contributing to one of the deepest, best organized, and (thus far) most successful rosters in the league. If any team seems capable of shouldering this tournament’s difficult load, it’s the Crew. 

“I think the team knows who we are as a team, and we know how we want to play,” Valenzuela said. “We can help each other out.”