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Confident Columbus, high-scoring LAFC among fancied MLS clubs

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Miami (AFP)

High-scoring Los Angeles FC and a confident Columbus squad with three wins from three matches will be among fancied sides when the Major League Soccer is Back Tournament knockout stages begin Saturday.

A 24-team group stage determined the last 16 to chase a title under a COVID-19 quarantine bubble at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

Knockout matches commence Saturday as group winner Orlando City, with two wins and a draw, meets wildcard qualifier Montreal Impact. New England, coming off a win and two draws, faces Philadelphia who are also unbeaten.

Columbus was the only club to take maximum points and not concede a goal in the group stage. It scored seven goals, second only to LAFC's 11.

"That says a lot about our group after being off for nearly four months," Crew coach Caleb Porter said of his team's 3-0 start. "So I'm really proud of the guys. That was the mission coming in for the first three games and we're very pleased."

Porter made multiple lineup changes in each match to keep players sharp and spread the load in what he hopes will be a run to the August 11 final.

"We have a lot of confidence," Porter said. "We've played a lot of guys in these three games, nearly every guy in the team has factored in, at least for one minute or more, in every game. That's a great thing. You need that in MLS.

"We're going to continue to need guys to come into games, because in these conditions, in the heat, we're taking a few injuries. We're not missing a beat and it's great to see. It's why we have a squad and it's why we have depth."

The Crew face Minnesota United on Tuesday to decide a quarter-final berth against Monday's winner between San Jose and Real Salt Lake.

US striker Gyasi Zardes leads Columbus with four goals, two shy of tournament leader Diego Rossi, a Uruguayan forward for LAFC.

Los Angeles, which had a win and two draws, opens Monday against reigning MLS champion Seattle, with the winner to face Orlando or Montreal in the last eight.

Sunday's matches pit New York City against Toronto FC and Vancouver against Sporting Kansas City. New York or Toronto will get the New England-Philadelphia winner while FC Cincinnati or the Portland Timbers will await Vancouver or Kansas City in the quarter-finals.

- Creating camaraderie -

Philadelphia midfielder Alejandro Bedoya likes the Union's chances of taking home the trophy in what could be the only hardware lifted in MLS this year.

"We're looking forward to winning the tournament," Bedoya said. "As you get more wins, you build more confidence and momentum within your group and you know, you create that kind of camaraderie and that feeling."

Orlando City forward Chris Mueller says the team, whose home city is among the areas hardest hit by the pandemic, has bonded well.

"Ultimately, it's kind of a hat off to the team for the performances that we've been putting in, the character that we've been showing on the field, especially coming back from a tough quarantine period and what's been a tough period for everyone around the world," he said.

"I really am just really proud of this group and happy with what we're showing out on the pitch."

Montreal coach Thierry Henry, whose club snuck into the last 16 despite two losses, knows the Impact can't afford another stumble.

"We have to make pressure on ourselves because we want to go very far in this tournament," he said. "We're not here just to play."

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