I would quibble with Charlie’s definition. To me, a black horse is a team that is not one of the best known “favorites”, a team that a neutral would not predict winning unless they try to be too smart for their own good.
I didn’t think FC Dallas was among the favorites, but Greg Seltzer then ranked them among the six teams he thinks are best equipped to win it all, so who knows? Again, he also didn’t include Toronto FC or Atlanta United among his six favorites, so who knows Greg? I am joking.
Anyway, for the purposes of this column, a black horse must have missed the playoffs in 2019. That’s it. Simple criteria are the best criteria. Here are four dark horses, from the most likely to win it all to the best chance of playing more than three games when most of them have fixed them for early release.
Make the case: Losing Felipe Gutierrez in knee surgery is a big blow, but there is a lot of quality to take the place of the Chilean. Alan Pulido was supposed to be in the final play, and he may be full of goals given his opening form this season. Between Johnny Russell, Gerso Fernandes, Gadi Kinda, Khiry Shelton and Daniel Salloi, there are also lucky creators and scorers on the wing.
Do you want to win this thing? You must obtain objectives from several sources. Sport has many sources, even without Gutierrez. In addition, they have a huge chip on their shoulders from 2019. Perhaps more importantly, I trust Peter Vermes to analyze all the possible scenarios and the potential benefits. No stone will remain unreturned, but it may not matter if …
Stumbling block: The backline. I may be wrong, but I’m comfortable saying that last year’s defensive record was a mistake. It was still a big problem. FC Cincinnati set a record for defensive futility (75 goals allowed) in 2019, and the normally respectable and often stellar Kansas City team was only eight goals behind that total, second worst in MLS. Vermes added a few center backs during the offseason but got a grand total of two games to get the same page before the season came to a halt.
Columbus Crew SC
Make the case: It’s not the same Crew that finished 2019 seven points from the playoff end. This is not the team that has lost only twice in its last 13 games. They’re much better than that thanks to the best winter transfer window in the league. Lucas Zelarayan. Darlington Nagbe. Vito Wormgoor. Fanendo Adi for a bag of balls. Getting Milton Valenzuela back from ACL surgery is like signing the best left back in MLS.
What I trust most is their ability to keep the ball – that Orlando’s warmth will not be a joke, better be the team that doesn’t have to run more than half the match – and they have a good mix of veterans and hungry young players. There is a balance on each line. They have winners. They have a chance.
Stumbling block: Reps. Zelarayan and Nagbe do not have a lot of meaningful experience with each other or with their teammates. The same goes for the potential partnership between Wormgoor and Jonathan Mensah. Can they pick up where they left off in March? Are Caleb Porter’s ideas on how he wants to play somewhat entrenched or still in the process of being realized?
Make the case: This tournament is going to be about who can get the most out of the conditions which are, to put it mildly, less than ideal. This group of Rapids already knows they can do it. Last year was a lesson in belief and strength from a group that has since been reinforced by Younes Namli, Nicolas Benezet, Drew Moor and Auston Trusty.
This attack is stacked with players who do it differently, but seem to get along well. If in doubt, let Jack Price whip him and tell Kei Kamara to go get him. Stopped kicks are a damn good differentiator, and no one scores more dead balls than Rapids. To Robin Fraser, I trust.
Stumbling block: The depth of their group. There is no clear favorite in Group D, but it may mean that third place is struggling to get the points necessary to continue. I don’t think this team has an obvious weakness. They are simply not a guarantee to do so. But nobody is.
Make the case: This one is for Charlie, who keeps coming back to Dynamo as a dark horse on Extratime. I’m starting to understand, even if Houston feels like the biggest shooter in this group. If the idea is to do something right, then it’s time for Tab Ramos to keep the last eight organized and unleash Alberth Elis, Mauro Manotas and Darwin Quintero on the counterattack.
They may chew certain teams, but they will first have to leave a stacked F group (LAFC, Galaxy, Timbers). Another benefit is that the humidity and warmth in central Florida shouldn’t be as important to Dynamo as it is to teams used to colder climates. It’s the Houston standard, and their historic home record reflects that.
Stumbling block: Can they be organized enough to provide the foundation on which the meter will thrive or fail? They cannot give up on cheap goals and sneak out of the group, and they are not exactly proven as a defensive unit. Can Elis provide a consistent end product? Big question marks.