MLS IS BACK
MLS iS BACK: ASN's preview of the league's return in Orlando
July 08, 2020
FOR THE FIRST TIME in four months, domestic soccer will be played as MLS has convened in Orlando for the MLS is Back tournament to resume the 2020 season. By now, everyone knows the format. The three group stage games will count to the regular season and the knockout stages will be played with a winner earning a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League. The road to this point, however, has been bumpy.
FC Dallas withdrew from the tournament and Nashville SC is hanging by a thread. Both teams came down with a wave of COVID-19 cases before they arrived in the “bubble” and it has forced the league to adjust. Meanwhile, things inside the bubble are holding form, for now.
As for my take on the tournament, I hope it goes well and I thinking playing the tournament makes sense. It maintains the connections fans have with their teams, it keeps the owners on-board, it keeps players playing, it also maintains a good relationship with the broadcast partners which are starved for content. It also helps keep the soccer culture going within the boarders of the country.
The FC Dallas and Nashville news puts this tournament on edge and there is a chance it is cancelled but it seems as if life inside the Orlando Bubble is being met with a lot of precaution. For now, everyone is hoping that it holds.
The loss of FC Dallas is particularly disappointing for American fans as it is the home of many top U.S. youth national team players – with a few emerging on the full national team. This is also a tournament that favors youth. We know the quality of play will be rusty and at preseason level but the league’s younger players seem to have the most to gain and the least to lose.
With that said, here are some predictions (which might change if the groups are realigned should Nashville withdraw) and players to watch
- Philadelphia: wins group
- New York City: advances in second place
- Chicago: advances in third place
- Inter Miami: fourth place/possible advancement
- Orlando City: eliminated
- Nashville: eliminated
Outlook: Philadelphia looks like a team that has a nice blend of youth and veterans to do well in this tournament. The team looked hungry and eager at the start of 2020 and there is no reason why this shouldn’t continue. Manager Jim Curtin has typically liked to play young players and if they show up in Orlando, Philadelphia can go far.
NYCFC had a rough opening two games and one was due to an early red card. But on a fresh field and off a baseball diamond, this team can let their talent shine – and NYCFC should have enough talent to get out of the group.
Inter Miami is an expansion team and it lost two close games to start 2020. These short tournaments, however, are different and Miami might do well in a sprint if it can get its top team on the field. It’s trouble will be when Diego Alonso has to employ squad rotation. The absence of forward Robbie Robinson will hurt.
Orlando City is the host team and that should help slightly. The team didn’t have to travel and is used to the climate. Oscar Pareja was brought in as manager to build a playoff-caliber team. It has some interesting players and American winger Chris Mueller is an effective player in this league but the team is also incomplete. Pareja is going to have to be creative when his top line is not out there.
Chicago played well under new manager Raphael Wicky at the start of the year despite only picking up one point from two road games. In the loss to Seattle, Chicago was the better team for long stretches. Wicky should have a team that is improved from the Paunovic years and advancing to the knockouts here is possible.
- Seattle Sounders: win group
- San Jose Earthquakes: advances in second place
- Vancouver Whitecaps: third place/possible advancement
Outlook: Seattle should easily be considered the favorites to win this group as it has been a team that has thrived in the playoffs in recent years.
San Jose meanwhile is a team that still has work to do under Mathias Almeyda to being able to compete in the Western Conference. The ugly 5-2 loss to Minnesota earlier in the season showed a pretty big gap between San Jose and the top of the conference.
Vancouver looked improved to start the season and it frustrated the Galaxy in a 1-0 win on the road in March. But this is a team still trying to build for the future after a disastrous 2019. Projecting success in Orlando seems a bit premature.
- Toronto: wins group
- DC United: advances in second place
- Montreal: third-place/possible advancement
- New England: eliminated
Outlook: It’s hard to pick against a Toronto team that is pretty well balanced and has done well in tournament settings in the past. The big question will be the health and fitness of Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore but in a sprint setting, not a marathon, I like Toronto’s chances to win this group and the team remains well-coached by Gregg Vanney.
DC United is a tough team to read in this league. In recent years there have been times when it looks like it could be among the better teams in the East and then there are times when it doesn’t even look close to competing. In this type of a setting, they probably have enough.
Montreal will be a tough test for Thierry Henry and there are reports of the team’s practice time being limited due to a COVID scare but we’ll go with the upset that Montreal sneaks past New England for third and qualifies for the knockouts.
It’s tough to bet against Bruce Arena in MLS but New England probably has the least talent in this group. It has experienced veterans and a good bounce or two could make the difference but New England will need luck to advance.
- Sporting Kansas City: wins the group
- Minnesota United: advances in second place
- Colorado Rapids: third place/possible advancement
- Real Salt Lake: eliminated
Outlook: This is perhaps the most interesting group of the tournament. Sporting, Minnesota, and Colorado all won both of their first two games to start the season. Real Salt Lake did not post a loss with two draws in March.
Sporting is a genuine contender to win the tournament. Peter Vermes now has a forward who can finish in Alan Pulido and maintains a well-balanced team. Minnesota is also a team that could very well win the tournament as there are few holes in the roster. Colorado is a scrappy team that will need a few breaks but could seize the moment with a big goal or two. Robin Fraiser is an underrated coach who posted a good record after taking over midway in 2019. Real Salt Lake isn’t bad but is the clear underdog in this group.
- Atlanta United: wins group
- New York Red Bulls: advances in second place
- Columbus Crew SC: third place/possible advancement
- FC Cincinnati: eliminated
Outlook: Even without Josef Martinez, Atlanta remains the class of this group. The midfield playmaking of Pity Martinez, Ezequiel Barco, Emerson Hyndman should provide enough service for a capable forward in this league. The defense and goalkeeping are also good enough. The knockouts could be a problem for Atlanta and the lack of a great homefield advantage doesn’t help. But Atlanta has more weapons and is more complete than the other teams in this group.
The real battle will come down to Columbus and the Red Bulls for second place. At this point, the Red Bulls deserve to be the favorites because it has superior central defending and has a few good attacking midfielders. The Red Bulls will sink or swim on its ability to finish. The team never replaced Bradley Wright-Phillips and the end of the Josh Sims loan is another blow to its offensive talent. Kaku and Daniel Royer will need to be big.
FC Cincinnati is still a long-term project and Jaap Stam is only now getting started.
- Los Angeles FC: wins group
- LA Galaxy: advances in second place
- Houston Dynamo: third place/possible advancement
- Portland Timbers: eliminated
Outlook: When last we left, the LA Galaxy were a frustrated group. The main reason was Chicharito’s lack or service as the Galaxy was unable to find the Mexican star in dangerous areas in the box. This should have been known coming into this year. Chicharito is not Zlatan. Zlatan could create and finish his own chances. Chicharito needs service, and we will see if Guillermo Barros Schelotto has come up with another plan. In that sense, this tournament will be important for players like Sebastian Lletget and Carlos Pavon to get the ball into the Mexican.
In the meantime, LAFC won’t have Carlos Vela but still has a lot of talent and is very well coached by Bob Bradley. Bradley has said his team won’t play a different style without Vela but it will be interesting to watch players like Diego Rossi and Brian Rodriguez step up. If LAFC can defend and come up with the occasional big save, it shouldn’t have problems winning this group.
All the attention will be on the Los Angeles teams, understandably, but Houston and Portland will also be looking to advance to the knockouts. In a league like MLS, any team has a realistic chance. Houston is still adjusting to Tab Ramos and is well familiar with the heat. Portland, however, looked lost in March where it barely snuck past a poor Nashville team and was outclassed by Minnesota.
This could change depending on Nashville’s status but I have the following teams in the knockouts:
Automatically: Philadelphia Union, NYCFC, Chicago Fire, Seattle Sounders, San Jose Earthquakes, Toronto FC, DC United, Sporting Kansas City, Minnesota United, Atlanta United, New York Red Bulls, LAFC, LA Galaxy.
Best 3rd/4th place: Columbus, Colorado, Montreal.
The teams with the best chance to win are Seattle, Philadelphia, Minnesota, Sporting Kansas City, LAFC, and Atlanta. Any of these teams could walk away with the trophy.
I will go with the Philadelphia Union winning it all in the final over Minnesota United. The team is well coached under Jim Curtin and it has a nice blend of youth and experience that should be a benefit in a tournament like this. The youth of Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie is solid. The team also has good leadership under Alejandro Bedoya and good goalkeeping under Andre Blake. There is depth at key positions should Curtin need to rotate his squad.
Like the Union, Minnesota United is a team also on the rise with something to prove in Orlando. The team was on fire before the shutdown and has the makings of a team that can go deep.
American players to watch
The United States national team central defender will dictate whether or not the Red Bulls can compete in Orlando. The Red Bulls lack firepower and goalkeeping is not what it once was with Luis Robles. Long, and his central defending partner Tim Parker, will need to be in fine form in order for the Red Bulls to make it out of this group. Long was injured in the team’s first two games in March but will be a welcome addition back to the team.
The United States national team winger has performed well in knockout type events and the best evidence of this is two MLS Cup titles where he played well throughout the playoffs. Like Long, there is pressure on Morris to deliver as a U.S. national team player. This environment, however, seems like one where Morris should do well for a Seattle team that is one of the best in the league.
The U.S. U-23 central midfielder looked decent in his first seven U.S. national team caps and he is comfortable with the ball at his feet. It remains to be seen if Jason Kreis at the U-23 level, or Gregg Berhalter with the full team will continue to use Yueill as the No. 6 or the more advanced No. 8. If it is the No. 6, Yueill will also need to display more defensive bite. That will also be the key for San Jose in Orlando. The Quakes surrendered seven goals in its first two games to start the season. Can Yueill help shield San Jose’s backline? That will be key in determining if San Jose can advance.
The last time Brenden Aaronson, 19, played, he was outstanding for Philadelphia in 3-3 draw with LAFC back in March. That was promising although inconclusive to show he had progressed from his nice rookie season in 2019 (Aaronson looked physically stronger to start the 2020 season). Philadelphia has a chance to go deep in Orlando but it will be really telling if it can do so with a young American teenager playing a key advanced playmaking role.
The Crew central defender had an up and down U-20 World Cup in 2019 with the U.S. team that advanced to the quarter finals. A lot of that uneven play, however, could be excused by the fact he had only just turned professional and had 194 USL minutes (and before that it was six months since he played in college) entering into the tournament.
Keita has a lot of physical tools but it was going to be interesting to see how he would develop once in professional environment. Keita looked promising in 2020 with Columbus losing just once in his eight starts. But now Keita could be a fulltime starter in 2020 and his development will be key to anchoring the team’s backline – which will need to be in top form to advance out of a group which includes Atlanta and the Red Bulls.
Mark McKenzie, 21, is one of the most talented young central defenders in the league and could be an anchor on the U.S. U-23 team. This will be his third fulltime season with the Union’s first team and he needs to move beyond prospect and into one of the best central defenders in the league. He has the talent to do so and he has the talent to play at one of the top leagues in Europe. He’s also very mature for a player of his age and that was shown when his teammates made him the captain of the U-20 World Cup team in 2019 despite being injured. McKenzie will need to avoid stagnation and help Philadelphia move to being a contender in the league.
Blackmon is a player who might be one of late-blooming-type players that used to happen in American soccer but have become rarer. But Blackmon is also under pressure in that he is a key player on the backline (at both right back and central defense) for LAFC, and LAFC is perhaps the most ambitious team in the league. Blackmon needs to live up to his potential for LAFC to be at the top of its game. In Orlando, this is especially true with Vela out. LAFC will need to win with its defense – and that includes Blackmon.
It seems like ages ago, but NYCFC started 2020 in a poor position in the standings after losses to Toronto and Columbus to start the season. In those two games, NYCFC was shutout both times. The group stages in Orlando should be of more importance to NYCFC than other teams. NYCFC wants to be among the best teams in the East but it will need to return to its winning ways. Parks was an intriguing player when he moved from Benfica to NYCFC and he has shown glimpses of his high ceiling. But now will be the season from him to deliver on a consistent basis and be a force in NYCFC’s midfield.
The Texan should now be fully familiar and comfortable in Atlanta United’s midfield after joining the club last August. With two goals in two games to open the season, Hyndman was finally coming into his stride as a player. The COVID shutdown came at a terrible time for him. Even without Josef Martinez, Atlanta has the talent to win this tournament but that will require players like Hyndman to carry the load. On another front, Hyndman is not a player fans should discount for making a return to the U.S. team. He might not start when everyone is healthy but he could be an important backup if he continues on with this form.
U.S. national team midfielder Sebastian Lletget’s role is more important this year with the Galaxy than in years before. The departure of Zaltan was the loss of a superstar player who could create his own chances and score. The arrival of Chicharito meant that the Galaxy still had a quality forward but not of the same type. Chicharito needs service to thrive and Lletget needs to be one of the players who can set up the Mexican in the box. Without this service, the Galaxy’s frustrations from earlier in the season could continue on.
The Red Bulls fullback was strong to start 2020 and this comes on a positive finish to the 2019 season. Duncan, 22, has always been a good fullback but suffered a setback in 2018 when he tore his ACL. That is now in the rear-view mirror and Duncan is back to fine form. The Red Bulls have never been afraid of playing talented young local players and Duncan has a promising future. A good tournament in Orlando could put him into the U.S. U-23 picture.
Last season, Miles Robinson, 23, was exceptional for Atlanta United as he played nearly 3000 minutes in central defense. His success under Frank de Boer led to his U.S. national team debut. But that was essentially his first season as a fulltime starter. Atlanta is banking that Robinson will not stagnate but rather grow from his 2019 season. If he continues to grow, Robinson might play his way into an eventual sale to Europe. He has a good opportunity now starting for one of the best teams in the country under a manager who was one of the best defenders in the world during his era. Orlando will be a big test for Robinson in both what he can do for Atlanta but also himself as a player with a bright future.
The Orlando City winger is one of the more underrated American players in the league and his success is important for Orlando to do well. Orlando City could surprise in this tournament and its group is manageable but it will take key players like Mueller to step up and produce.