The MLS Is Back tournament has been the league’s attempt to captivate viewers over the past month by showcasing the glories of soccer in the United States. MLS returned to action nearly three weeks before any other American mens’ professional sports league, largely in the hope of attracting new fans in a sports-starved nation.
And I gotta say: It totally worked on me. I’ve always been entertained by MLS games, but my job typically requires me to spend my falls writing about football and my springs writing about basketball, leaving me with relatively little energy in the summer to devote to a domestic soccer league. But this year I dove into MLS 100 percent, and I’ve been fascinated.
From what I can tell, no MLS game has ever been normal. It feels like the 22 starters and the referees get together before each game to decide who’s going to have the greatest performance of his life and who’s going to make a comically embarrassing error. MLS is high scoring, with a team netting at least three goals in 14 of the 50 games in the tournament; it is prone to thrilling finishes, with seven games featuring a tying or go-ahead goal after the 90th minute. And most importantly, it is almost entirely unpredictable. In Tuesday night’s championship game, Orlando City will play for the title after finishing second-to-last in the league last season. Meanwhile, of the top four teams in the MLS standings last year, only one (LAFC) even reached the quarterfinals of the MLS Is Back tournament—and then that team lost to Orlando City. In MLS, who wins and who loses feels like a matter of which team the gods choose to laugh at.
If you didn’t tune in to most of the MLS Is Back tournament, it’s not too late to start following the league. After this event wraps up, MLS is set to move forward with the rest of its regular season. To further show why you should watch, here are the eight most ridiculous games of the tournament.
8. Ninety-Eighth-Minute Nani
Orlando City SC is easily the story of the tournament. They’ve cycled through four head coaches in their six years in MLS; they’ve never qualified for the MLS Cup playoffs despite the postseason featuring 14 teams in a 26-team league. But somehow, they’ve fought their way to the tournament final. It must be the home-field advantage they’re afforded playing in Orlando. Sure, the games aren’t being played in their home stadium, the players aren’t staying in their homes, and there are no fans in the stands. I guess the only real difference between Orlando’s tournament experience and that of everyone else is the Orlando players didn’t have to board a plane to come to Disney. I guess former Manchester United star Nani just feels at home in Central Florida.
Orlando played in the opening match of the tournament against Inter Miami. The Flamingos took a 1-0 lead—Miami is adamant that the pink wading birds on its logo are herons, but let’s not be ridiculous, they’re flamingos—but Orlando scored in the 70th minute to tie things up, and then took the lead on a 98th-minute game-winner by Nani:
Nani was Cristiano Ronaldo’s wingman with Manchester United and the Portuguese national team. Now he’s Chris Mueller’s wingman, which sounds a lot less sexy, but appears to be roughly as fun. Nani scored twice in Orlando’s semifinal win over Minnesota United. In the championship game, he very well could get a hat trick.
7. 10 > 11
Toronto FC was dominating DC United when both clubs had 11 men on the field in their game. Then with seconds to go before halftime, DC’s Junior Moreno was sent off for a second yellow card. Toronto had a 2-0 lead at even strength and 45 minutes to play up a man. This should’ve ended 5-0.
Instead, DC somehow stormed back, down a man and two goals in the game’s closing minutes. In the 84th minute, Toronto had barely anybody on its half of the field as new DC signee Federico Higuaín slipped away for a cheeky chip:
And in the 91st minute, DC scored the equalizer after a free kick:
DC escaped with a draw, and for a moment it appeared as if they were the tournament’s comeback kids. In their second game, Higuaín had another late equalizer to force a draw. While DC lost their third game and finished last in their group, they still get two points in the MLS standings because all games in the group stages of this tournament were technically part of the MLS regular season.
6. The First 90 Minutes Don’t Matter
Most soccer teams leading after 90 minutes go on to win. At the very least, teams leading after 90 minutes typically don’t lose. But Minnesota United stole a game against Sporting KC after regulation time had expired.
The Loons were helped by KC goalkeeper Tim Melia picking up a 74th-minute red card. That left the team formerly known as the Wizards down a man and their top-tier goalkeeper. They clung to a 1-0 lead for about 15 minutes, but then it all collapsed. In the 93rd minute, Minnesota’s Jan Gregus (pronounced: Grey Goose) whipped an intoxicating free kick into the box, and KC’s Khiry Shelton chested it into the back of the net for an own goal:
The Loons took the lead in the seventh and final minute of stoppage time on this goal by Trinidadian star Kevin “Hot Boy” Molino:
Minnesota made it all the way to the semifinals, but couldn’t pull another upset against Orlando.
One player scored both of Toronto FC’s goals in its 2-2 draw with DC United: 20-year-old Detroit native Ayo Akinola. But that wasn’t even his best scoring performance of the tournament. He had a hat trick in Toronto’s game against the Montreal Impact. My favorite goal was the one in which he leveled the only defender standing between him and the net, at the 5:00 mark of this video:
The youngster had scored only one goal in his first two years with Toronto FC’s senior club before scoring five in two games in Orlando. He’s electric, and Toronto is apparently determined to make all of his goals necessary: The club notched a draw against DC and squeaked past Montreal 4-3. I can’t wait for Toronto to win a game 7-6 behind six Akinola goals.
4. How Hard Can One Team Try to Lose?
In their debut 2019 season, FC Cincinnati was the worst team in the league—and arguably the worst in MLS history. They set records for the most goals allowed (75) and worst goal differential (minus-44). But the club revamped itself heading into 2020: Dutch general manager Gerard Nijkamp hired Dutch head coach Jaap Stam while bringing in Dutch striker Jurgen Locadia (on loan from Premier League side Brighton and Hove Albion) and Dutch midfielder Siem de Jong. (How do you say “Yes, the chili goes on top of the pasta” in Dutch?) With Dutchmen and thematically consistent orange uniforms, the league-worst club turned things around.
In the group stage, Cincinnati beat Atlanta United and New York Red Bulls. That set up a match between Cincinnati and the Portland Timbers, one of the league’s best teams. Strange things happened, like whatever this is:
The Timbers were leading in the 79th minute when Portland goalkeeper Steve Clark apparently forgot that he was allowed to touch the ball with his hands, turning a ball he could’ve scooped up into a penalty for Cincinnati:
Locadia converted the PK, and the upstarts were all set to go to deciding penalty kicks. But in the 87th minute, Cincinnati had a chance to steal a win: De Jong found Locadia unmarked mere feet in front of an open net. But Locadia biffed the opportunity, sending the ball up, up, and away, presumably denting the Epcot globe somewhere miles off camera:
Locadia missed again in penalty kicks, and Cincinnati lost. Portland has advanced to Tuesday night’s championship game, and if it wins it all, I’ll think about how hard the club tried to get eliminated by one of the worst teams in the league.
3. The Nine-Man Comeback and Nine-Man Letdown
In the first FIFA game I owned, I used to commit the most violent fouls possible to see how many red cards I could get. (After five, the game is called.) Part of this was just the sheer prepubescent joy of causing pain to virtual avatars, like going on rampages in Grand Theft Auto or trapping your Sims in pools without ladders. But sometimes I’d try to win with seven or eight guys, just to see if it was possible.
Apparently, 8-year-old Rodger was in charge of the Colorado Rapids for their match against Sporting KC. The Rapids were up 1-0 when defender Danny Wilson tackled a KC attacker running free on goal. (When I say “tackled,” I mean it in the American football sense.) KC scored to level the game and took the lead on a penalty kick awarded after an accidental handball in the box. Colorado’s Jack Price was shown a red card for “abusive language” while protesting the handball call.
The Rapids were now down to nine men and trailing—but they didn’t give up. Somehow, an attack with just three Colorado players broke through a stacked KC defense that had seven men in the defensive third, and Jonathan Lewis scored an equalizer in the 85th minute.
Unfortunately for Colorado, the two red cards, multiple VAR reviews, and a hydration break meant that there were 12 minutes of extra time. Sporting KC kept applying pressure, and eventually scored the winner—not on a well-earned goal, but on a savable shot that dinged off an overworked defender’s leg and blooped past the keeper’s outstretched arm.
A team losing while playing two men down is a logical result, but it happened in the least logical way. Before I went on red card sprees in FIFA 98, I always flipped the setting to easy. Unfortunately, that’s not an option in real life, and the Rapids succumbed to a freaky bounce and the inevitability of numbers.
2. The Wall of Hasal
The Whitecaps were down to their last goalkeeper. Their starter, Maxime Crepeau, broke his thumb against the Sounders. Their backup, Bryan Meredith, left the team midway through the tournament after his mother died. Normally, MLS has a pair of pool goalkeepers it makes available to teams that need one, but neither was available to Vancouver. One, Caleb Patterson-Sewell, came into the Orlando bubble with Nashville SC, and left after that team had an outbreak of positive coronavirus tests. The other, Charlie Lyon, was used by Sporting KC after the aforementioned red card to Melia—and because the Whitecaps are based in Canada, Lyon would have needed an international transfer to switch from an American club to a Canadian club, and the transfer window was closed. None of these fluky technicalities would make sense to fans of any other soccer league in the world, and all of them were compounded by the weirdness of the bubble.
So Vancouver was left with one option: Thomas Hasal, a 21-year-old from Saskatoon who had never played in an MLS game. He didn’t allow any goals as a substitute for Crepeau against the Sounders. He kept a clean sheet in the group stage finale against the Chicago Fire. Then came the knockout rounds and a matchup with Sporting KC.
KC took 36 shots. If that sounds like a lot, it is—it’s the fourth most by any team in MLS history. That it happened against an untested no-name goalkeeper should’ve resulted in a blowout. Instead, Hasal spent 90 minutes standing on his head. (It’s a Canadian term.)
Hasal made eight saves, including some absolute beauties. In the 18th minute, his Whitecaps teammates left Gadi Kinda completely unmarked just a few feet from net, but Hasal made a reflexive punch to his right to notch a save. In the 66th minute, he got his fingertips to a shot by Alan Pulido to push it off the post. Despite the onslaught, Hasal kept the game tied at zero and forced a penalty shootout. Hasal made a save in PKs, but his teammates scored only once on four shots. Sporting KC moved on.
Hasal never allowed a goal in regulation time. If I had my way, he’d win the Golden Gloves trophy awarded to the tournament’s best keeper. But he was utterly abandoned by his teammates, who allowed three dozen shots and couldn’t be bothered to score in penalty kicks.
1. San Jose Earthquakes 4, Vancouver Whitecaps 3
Earthquakes-Whitecaps was an argument against the very concept of trying. Just look at this own goal by San Jose midfielder Judson. He loses the ball just outside of the attacking penalty box, and could stand idly by as two Whitecaps go on a breakaway. But instead of simply letting Vancouver score, Judson sprints as fast as he can for 80 yards, and scores for them.
Vancouver’s Yordy Reyna is one-on-one with the goalkeeper and should score himself. Instead he decides to pass, and makes an absolutely terrible touch, with the ball going directly to Judson. But Judson, despite being on the wrong team, does Reyna’s job for him, calmly depositing the ball into the net. The look on Judson’s face is one of total despair. He who gave his all and actually made things worse.
That was a theme for the Whitecaps. They scored three goals in this game—more than they scored in their other three tournament games combined—and still lost. (This was before they realized Hasal was the world’s greatest goalkeeper.) San Jose scored three unanswered goals in the final 30 minutes of the game to turn a 3-1 deficit into a 4-3 win, finishing with this Shea Salinas miracle in the 99th minute.
These two goals feels like a good summation of the MLS Is Back tournament. It would be unfair to say the thing you’re expecting never happens in MLS. Both of these goals featured strikers running toward the net, and both ended in goals. Those aren’t unexpected results. But neither happened in straightforward ways. One goal featured a player sprinting as hard as he could to ruin his own life; the other had defenders seemingly making a stop, only for the ball to ping-pong back to Salinas for a stunning game-winner. The scoreline never tells the whole story. You really have to see the whole thing to experience the absurdity.