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Preview: LAFC favorites to reach MLS is Back semis; who joins them?

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Who will join the Philadelphia Union, who dismantled Sporting Kansas City in the first of four quarterfinal matchups on Thursday, in the semifinals of the MLS is Back tournament?

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Orlando City SC v. Los Angeles FC — Friday, 7:30 p.m. ET

While it’s impossible to say with absolute certainty ahead of the weekend’s games, at least one clear favorite stands head and shoulders above the other six remaining sides: reigning Supporters’ Shield winners, LAFC — yes, even without reigning MLS MVP Carlos Vela who opted out of the tournament to remain with his pregnant and to be present for the birth of their child.

After a bumpy start to the group stage, LAFC thrashed rivals LA Galaxy in group game no. 2; it was more of the same against reigning MLS Cup winners Seattle Sounders in the round of 16 — arguably the two most impressive performances of the tournament thus far. Diego Rossi has been happy to step in and shoulder the goal-scoring load with seven goals in four games — paving the way for rumors-a-plenty about European transfer interest — along with Bradley Wright-Phillips, who scored a goal in each of the three group games.

As for Friday’s opponent and the surprise performers of the tournament thus far, Orlando City, under the guidance of newly installed head coach Oscar Pareja, are enjoying what is easily their best run of results since joining MLS in 2015, making this the most intriguing clash of the quarterfinals.

San Jose Earthquake v. Minnesota United — Saturday, 8 p.m. ET

Speaking of massively improved sides under a new head coach, Matias Almeyda got San Jose playing some high-quality soccer for much of 2019 before the wheels fell off late in the season. Almeyda is back for a second season in the Bay Area, and the ‘Quakes look to have gone to another level under the Argentine’s guidance. Winger Cristian Espinoza was a particularly bright spot last season and has only picked up where he left off with two goals and an assist in Orlando already. With Espinoza opposite Vako on the other side of the field, San Jose are getting significant contributions from the wings, which is a welcome change of pace after years of having to rely too heavily upon Chris Wondolowski and only Wondo.

With all of that said, Minnesota should prove to be a particularly tough matchup, given the degree to which they limit teams’ chances. Adrian Heath loves to play the “nobody believes in us, everybody thinks we’re terrible” card, but the rest of the league has taken notice of the Loons, who are yet to lose in this tournament. Having taken down early-days darlings Columbus Crew SC, the only side to win all three of their group games, in the round of 16 will ensure that Minnesota are no longer able to fly under anyone’s radar.

New York City FC v. Portland Timbers — Saturday, 10:30 p.m. ET

The final game of the weekend is just as intriguing as the first two, but for a different reason. NYCFC and Portland have each mucked and yucked their respective paths to the quarterfinals without ever once looking overly dominant or… good. NYCFC advanced from the group stage as third-place finishers with just three points, and though Portland won their group and finished ahead of LAFC, they never looked convincing — a pair of 2-1 victories over the Galaxy and Houston Dynamo is hardly something to brag about.

So, now they face one another — a near-mirror image of themselves, both in terms of their respective paths to this point and a very familiar tactical approach. Though each side has plenty of South American attacking talent, Ronny Deila and Giovanni Savarese have each favored a low-block defensive approach and hung their hopes on creating scoring chances on the counter. So, Sunday’s late game presents us with the age-old question: what happens when two teams who sit back and wait for their opponents to attack play one another? The result, as is often the case, could be a rather difficult watch.

2020 MLS Power Rankings, Vol. 1

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With the 2020 Major League Soccer season kicking off this weekend, here’s a (surely brilliant) predictive edition of the Power Rankings, which will be updated at the start of every month here on PST…

[ MORE: Jurgen Klinsmann’s parting shots cause anger at Hertha Berlin ]

MLS Cup favorites
Los Angeles FC and New York City FC

We all remember what LAFC did last year, and the fact they didn’t win MLS Cup despite settling most every relevant league record will only serve as further fuel for Bob Bradley to demand even more from (inarguably) the most talented team in the league. One potential pitfall: after trading Walker Zimmerman (for a record amount of allocation money), it’s unclear who’ll start at center back, and if you think it’s clear it’s a less than ideal situation. As for NYCFC, they managed to fly under the radar last year despite finishing top of the Eastern Conference by six points. While they don’t have the household names of an LAFC or Atlanta United, Domenec Torrent’s side (now that of Ronny Deila) played every bit the attractive, fluid attacking soccer of the league’s darlings. In a week East, NYCFC could wind up Supporters’ Shield winners.


MLS Cup contenders
Seattle Sounders, Atlanta United, LA Galaxy and Toronto FC

These teams will be in the playoffs, 100 percent guarantee. (fingers are now crossed) With satisfactory answers to certain questions, they could make the leap from contenders to favorites with ease. Those questions are… Seattle: does the completely rebuilt backline come together, and how long does it take? Atlanta: will head coach Frank De Boer find the right balance between his preferred defensive slant and the roster’s natural tendency to attack at all costs? Galaxy: is the defense, which has been horrific for five or six years now, any better? Toronto: wait, why aren’t they on the “favorites” line? Ah, yes, because only one team per conference is allowed.


See you in the playoffs
Real Salt Lake, FC Dallas, Philadelphia Union and D.C. United

Here’s the thing about this group: the two teams from the East should finish fourth or fifth in the junior circuit (some ways back of the clear-cut top-three), but they probably wouldn’t make the playoffs in the West. By default, Philadelphia and D.C. get a bump in the tiers for the fact they’ll walk into the playoffs in the East. That is not — repeat not — to say they are as good as RSL or Dallas, who would actually push Atlanta and Toronto for second and third.


In the hunt
Portland Timbers, Sporting Kansas City, Minnesota United, Colorado Rapids, Chicago Fire, Houston Dynamo, Columbus Crew SC, San Jose Earthquakes, New York Red Bulls, New England Revolution and Montreal Impact

That’s a long list of teams. As stated above, the teams from the East will be in playoff contention due to not having seven standout sides. Basically, any combination of these teams could wind up in the playoffs. Looking to the West, Portland, Sporting KC and Minnesota have the potential to climb a tier (or two) if all goes right for them, but each of those sides has a glaring, and potentially fatal, flaw. The temptation to say Colorado will actually be quite good and also a playoff team is very strong, but it goes against all human instincts when you think back to how they opened the 2019 season, before firing Anthony Hudson and hiring Robin Fraser and almost making the playoffs anyway.


Fulfilling obligations
FC Cincinnati, Orlando City SC and Vancouver Whitecaps

Barely a month into their first season (last season), Cincinnati was very clearly the worst team in the league. Somehow, the offseason has gone even worse for them. They (probably) managed to improve enough so as to not claim back-to-back Wooden Spoons, but enough to contend for a playoff place? Highly unlikely. Orlando City has never — not once in their five-year MLS history — given me, or anyone, reason to believe they are a competent organization. Until they do so for a period of six (6) months or more, they just exist for existence’s sake. Speaking of merely existing, the Vancouver Whitecaps.


Expansion teams, TBD
Inter Miami and Nashville SC

Here’s the thing about expansion teams: they aren’t to be trusted, either way. What looks good on paper can sometimes look terrible on the field, and what looks terrible on paper can sometimes look great on the field. We’ll give Miami and Nashville their first assessments after a month of games.

NYCFC grabs five away goals in CONCACAF Champions League debut

CONCACAF Champions League
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New York City FC took a 5-3 advantage over San Carlos in the first leg of their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal on Thursday at Estadio Alejandro Morera Soto in Costa Rica.

Heber converted a second-half penalty to complete a hat trick for Ronny Deila’s side — that’s gonna take some getting used to — with Alexander Callens and Alexandru Mitrita scoring NYCFC’s fourth and fifth goals.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule ]

Jorman Aguilar, Marcos Mena,and Omar Browne scored for the Costa Rican hosts with two assists arriving via Randy Chirino.

San Carlos visits Red Bull Arena for the second leg on Wednesday.

The hosts pulled within a goal with 11 minutes to play, but Mitrita buried a rebound of a saved Maxi Moralez penalty kick.

The 28-year-old Heber scored 15 goals and three assists in just 22 appearances last season after arriving from HNK Rijeka in Croatia’s top tier.

MLS clubs eye Chelsea’s Pedro as January exit looms

MLS clubs eye Chelsea's Pedro
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Pedro has played for just two clubs since his senior career began in earnest. Will a move to a the third come in Major League Soccer this January?

The Chelsea winger and former Barcelona playmaker is being courted by Inter Miami and New York City FC, according to Goal.com. He’s also openly stated his desire for a Barcelona move if wanted by the Catalan set, and has been mentioned for intra-Premier League moves as well.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

Pedro’s contract ends in six months but the report says Chelsea could be wooed to selling him in January now that the money can add to its January transfer kitty.

The 32-year-old isn’t playing much under Frank Lampard with a goal and an assist in just under 600 minutes. He scored 13 goals with five assists last season in a starring role under Maurizio Sarri.

Chelsea has been linked with a number of wing options to add to a corps of Willian, Christian Pulisic, and Callum Hudson-Odoi. The Blues beat Arsenal on Sunday to provide a four-point Top Four cushion over Manchester United.

Transfermarkt, however, pegs Pedro’s value at almost $20 million. A fee in that neighborhood would break the MLS incoming transfer record.held by Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez.

His glittering career includes triumphs at the 2010 World Cup and EURO 2012. He won 20 trophies at Barcelona and three more with Chelsea. He’d certainly deliver the goods in MLS, but will he choose America over other options in January?

Report: Austin FC hire Reyna as sporting director

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Months after locking in Josh Wolff as head coach, Austin FC is reportedly on the verge of naming one of MLS’ best sporting directors to the same role.

The Athletic reported on Wednesday that Anthony Precourt’s Austin FC has hired Claudio Reyna from New York City FC to be the expansion club’s new sporting director. It’s the second expansion club that Reyna is working for since he joined NYCFC in 2013 as its first director of soccer operations.

[READ: MLS takes big step with All-Star game update]

If true, it’s a shrewd move by Precourt to bring in a man who knows MLS like the back of his thumb, and to pair him with a former teammate from the U.S. Men’s National Team. Wolff’s spent almost his entire career in professional soccer in MLS too, so the club now has two influential individuals who are knowledgable about the league and it’s various roster mechanisms.

Austin FC doesn’t enter MLS until 2021, so locking in Reyna now gives him more than a year of runway towards building an MLS-ready roster. Precourt has surely seen the best-case scenario – Seattle, Los Angeles FC, Atlanta United – where a team loaded with top-heavy talent and good role players can make a deep playoff run in its expansion season. But he’s likely also seen the worst-case scenarios – look at Minnesota United in the past and FC Cincinnati this year.

Bringing in Reyna certainly makes it more likely that Austin FC’s future will lie in the former category.