In the hunt for the first major trophy of the 2020 Major League Soccer season, the MLS is Back Tournament is beginning to heat up in the knockout rounds. As a handful of teams have already gone home, one more team is soon to follow as Columbus Crew SC and Minnesota United meet on Tuesday night.
Both teams have enjoyed electric starts to the start of their campaigns. The Black & Gold sit atop the Eastern Conference with 13 points and are unbeaten so far in 2020, winning three of three in tournament play and conceding zero goals. The Loons maintained an unbeaten start of their own, nabbing 11 points while sitting second in the Western Conference. MNUFC is one point back of first-place Sporting Kansas City.
Based on the start of this season, the Crew has yet to play a team of Minnesota’s caliber, and it’s only fitting that Tuesday’s match has it all to play for with a spot in the tournament’s quarterfinals is on the line.
Let’s take a look at the next opponent for the Black & Gold in Minnesota United.
MNUFC at a glance
League Form: D-D-W-W-W
Tournament Standing: Second place, Group D (5 points, +1 goal differential)
Leading Scorer: Kevin Molino (3 goals)
Assist Leader: Jan Gregus (4 assists)
Player to watch
Remember this guy, Crew fans? The former Creighton product and Black & Gold standout enjoyed a breakout 2015 season where he was crucial in helping Columbus reach the 2015 MLS Cup final. Finlay recorded career bests in both goals and assists with 12 and 13 respectively and was named into the 2015 MLS Best XI along with former Columbus striker Kei Kamara.
Much is different now as Finlay was traded from Columbus in 2017 and has spent his time with the Loons ever since. After an injury-ridden 2018 season, Finlay appeared in 33 games for Minnesota in 2019 and had a resurgence so far in 2020 while tallying two goals and two assists. Finlay still possesses the speed he had for the Black & Gold and has the creativity to help United breakdown the brick wall that has been the Columbus defense so far in MLS is Back.
How they play
An 11-year coaching veteran in England, head coach Adrian Heath has played United exclusively in a traditional 4-2-3-1 formation in 2020, allowing for maximum balance and fluidity. The formation allows for the four defenders at the back to be the team’s backbone, allowing defensive midfielders in front to feed four main offensive threats with midfielder Jon Gregus also getting forward, acting as a fifth.
Finlay, along with Kevin Molino and Robin Lod, who rotate between the central attacking midfielder and left midfielder/winger positions, allows for a bevy of strikers to lead the charge. Expect Mason Toye, Luis Amarilla or former Black & Gold forward Aaron Schoenfeld to play up top.
Heath has been given time by owners to find the right players and personnel to fit his style and if the 2020 season is any evidence, he seems to have the Loons on the right track. Being the same formation that Crew head coach Caleb Porter is known to deploy, Tuesday’s matchup with be nothing short of a thriller.
How the Crew wins
Heath has toyed with a somewhat of a reverse-psychology approach in the buildup to Tuesday’s match, lauding the public’s and media’s crowning of the Crew being the team to beat in the tournament. While this may or may not be true, Porter wasn’t buying in.
“He likes to sandbag his team a little bit and take the attention off them and put it on the other team,” Porter said in response to Heath’s comments. “The problem with that is everybody knows they have a good team. If you look at their record, they’re now unbeaten on the year. If you look at where they’re at in the Supporters’ Shield, they’re third-best in the league. So everybody knows they’re a good team. This is the best team we’ve played so far this season.”
The Crew need not change a thing if they are to keep things rolling in Orlando. With three games, three wins and three clean sheets under its belt, the team has been doing everything in its power to show the league what the Black & Gold are capable of achieving. Avoiding the lingering injury bug, however, will be an important focus as the tournament wears on. It will be interesting to see how the backline can hold up without starting goalkeeper Eloy Room in between the sticks. Can Andrew Tarbell keep the Black & Gold’s defense afloat against tougher competition? That answer is coming very soon.
Porter may have done just as much with the team off the pitch than what he’s been able to do with them on it. Any team can spend money and buy players, but it’s about a coach’s ability to bring them together for a common goal and get the best out of them. It’s a mindset that he’s instilled in this team that’s been able to trounce anything they can possibly conjure up throughout 90 minutes of any game.