They may never come out and say it, but the US Open Cup sure feels like a hassle for some MLS clubs.
Teams already have jam-packed schedules for much of the season, with 34 league games, players leaving for international duty and money-making friendlies. Throw in a knockout tournament and it’s hard to blame teams for being okay with a prompt exit.
Minnesota United weren’t exactly seen as contenders in the 2019 tournament. The Loons had little success in their previous two tournaments as an MLS club, bowing out in the fourth round (the round in which MLS teams enter) in 2017, and falling in the fifth round to the eventual champions in 2018.
The tournament hasn’t gone as expected for Minnesota — which is very much a good thing. For starters, United was drawn at home for the fourth round. In their first home US Open Cup game since 2016, the Loons routed Sporting Kansas City 4-1 in a game that saw United’s attack find its feet again.
The joys of defeating a semi-rival (you decide to what extent that is) faded fast when Minnesota was drawn, for the second year in a row, away to the Houston Dynamo in the fifth round. The Loons were down 2-0 at halftime, but, defying expectations, fought back to win 3-2 and advance to the quarterfinals.
Now, they’ve got a home date with the USL Championship’s New Mexico United on July 10th, a chance to win the Midwest(ish) region and secure a spot in the semifinals.
As one of the eight teams left in the competition, it suddenly looks like Minnesota United just might have a chance to win the US Open Cup. But can they do it?
Manager Adrian Heath certainly does. “Yes, we can,” he said after the win against Kansas City. “If we can get some ties [at home], I think we can beat anybody in the league here.”
The Loons also aren’t resting some of their star players for the tournament. Darwin Quintero made it clear to the team that he wanted to be a part of the cup run from the beginning, and he’s been a key factor. “I think this is where hierarchy is shown and where every player wants to be,” he said after the fourth round win. “I told all my teammates that today we have to win, there is no other game to turn it out, it was today or nothing.”
Having eliminated the defending champions on the road, Minnesota now has something of a shot at the trophy, which also comes with $300,000 and spot in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League. (The runner-up also gets $100,000.)
New Mexico shouldn’t be over-estimated in the coming days, but the Loons should be able to make it past a team of that caliber without much issue. Who, then, would they face in the semifinals?
The Loons would, with a victory, face the West region winner, either Los Angeles FC or the Portland Timbers. LAFC is the home team and the favorite to advance to the semis — they’ve lost just once this season and defeated Portland 4-1 at home in league play.
FiveThirtyEight maintains a prediction model for Major League Soccer that includes probabilities for standings and playoff positions, but also results for specific games. It’s not perfect for Open Cup, because it allows for draws (USOC requires a winner) and doesn’t account for any squad rotation — but by the semifinals, any team left is likely to be trying to win.
Semifinal hosts will be determined by draw, so there are four possibilities for Minnesota in the semis. Here’s the breakdown of their chances of advancing, from FiveThirtyEight (remember, draws make these percentages not add up to 100%):
If Portland pulls off the upset against LAFC and the Timbers host the semifinal:
MIN win - 19%
POR win - 60%
If Minnesota hosts Portland instead:
MIN win - 43%
POR win - 34%
Now, it’s more likely that LAFC will be the other semifinal team. If LAFC hosts:
MIN win - 8%
LAFC win - 78%
That’s, uh, not the best. But if Minnesota hosted that tie:
MIN win - 28%
LAFC win - 50%
In case you were wondering, that’s an average chance of 24.5% that Minnesota would advance to the semifinals.
Again, these numbers aren’t perfect (please don’t bet on them), but they tell us what we already knew — the Portland Timbers really need to beat LAFC on July 10th. And whatever happens in these quarterfinal matchups, the Loons should never fly far from Allianz Field.