By Ben Wright.
It's finally here. After four months without a match being played, MLS is Back.
It's been 122 days since Los Angeles FC and Philadelphia Union played out a thrilling 3-3 draw in the final match before Covid-19 put a stop to the season. From Orlando, Florida, 25 (for now) teams will face off in a World Cup-style tournament. Each team will play three group stage matches which will also count towards the regular season (tentatively to be played in the fall). The winner of the tournament will go home with a berth in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League and a cash prize of $1.1 million.
The tournament has hit some bumps before kickoff, with FC Dallas being withdrawn from the tournament after 11 members of their delegation tested positive for Coronavirus. Nashville SC doesn't appear to be far behind, with five confirmed cases and four others waiting on re-tests after the first round was inconclusive. By the time this piece is published, Nashville very well could be out.
The Dallas and Nashville news put the tournament on a more somber note. I don't think I'm alone in saying that as much as I want to watch, talk and write about MLS again, it's not worth risking people's lives. If MLS can keep the clusters contained to Nashville and Dallas, great. So far only one other player has tested positive in the bubble. If the virus starts spreading between teams, it should be called off. Dallas's withdrawal is very disappointing, as the Texas team is filled with high-potential young players who would get a chance to shine in a tournament that will make use of squad rotation. As someone who covers Nashville, I'm disappointed that the team I am most familiar with seems on its way out. Still, there will be plenty of exciting talent on display, and ESPN's production promises to be an innovative and different way to view the game from what we're used to. The tournament isn't perfect, but it's a major step up from what we've had over the last four months; nothing. With that being said, here are some predictions for the tournament (these may very well change if Nashville is withdrawn and groups are re-organized).
PHILADELPHIA UNION: Winner
INTER MIAMI: Second Place ORLANDO CITY: Third Place NEW YORK CITY FC: Fourth Place/Possible Advancement
CHICAGO FIRE: Eliminated
NASHVILLE SC: Eliminated
Philadelphia has one of the more balanced squads in the league. Led by captain Alejandro Bedoya, a World Cup veteran, the team is energized by emerging young players like Mark McKenzie and Brendan Aaronson. Forward Sérgio Santos was in good form before the league went on hold, part of an attacking corps featuring Kacper Przybyłko, Jamiro Monteiro, and fan favorite slash human highlight reel Ilsinho. Manager Jim Curtin has created a clear tactical identity for his side, and each player will know their role in and out before setting foot on the pitch.
Expansion side Inter Miami lost their first two matches of 2020, and may seem like an odd pick to finish second, but the talent on their roster is tantalizing, and if they click they'll be a formidable opponent. MLS veterans like Wil Trapp, Luis Robles, Román Torres and Lee Nguyen mix with exciting talents like Andrés Reyes, Matías Pellegrini and Rodolfo Pizzaro. On paper this squad should be really good. I think they'll live up to the billing.
Orlando City is probably an even stranger pick to advance from the group. They've been a serial underperformed, never qualifying for the playoffs in their time in MLS. 2020 was billed as a different year, with new manager Óscar Pareja hired to bring stability and cohesiveness to a club that has been anything but steady. There's talent on the roster, too. Nani, Dom Dwyer, Chris Mueller, Mauricio Pereya, João Moutinho... the list goes on. If Pareja can get these players on the same page, they could be a dark horse to make a run in the tournament. They're also the "hosts", which is typically an advantage in this type of tournament. Whether that will impact a closed-door competition remains to be seen.
NYCFC has plenty of talent, but struggled in their first two matches of the season. Their squad has plenty of talent, with enough depth for new manager Ronny Deila to work with. Keep in mind, the fourth place finisher in this group could still have a very, very strong performance. I think this NYCFC side will start out quietly, but by the time the knockout rounds roll around, they'll be up and running and poised for a deep run.
Chicago is a team in flux, undergoing a complete makeover in the offseason. New manager Raphaël Wicky set his team up for two respectable performances to start the season, but without much proven depth his side could be in trouble.
This tournament will be a struggle for Nashville, assuming they play at all. If they do play, they'll be starting from behind - they haven't practiced in over a week, and could be missing some key players due to the virus. It's a shame; I actually thought they could surprise some people going into the tournament.
SEATTLE SOUNDERS: Winner
SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES: Second Place
VANCOUVER WHITECAPS: Third Place/Possible Advancement
Seattle should be one of the tournament favorites, and are close to dynasty territory in regular MLS play. Lead by playmaker and captain Nicolás Lodeiro, the Sounders are one of the more exciting sides in the league. Jordan Morris is always a vertical threat on the wings, and their midfield is stout, with Cristian Roldan and Gustav Svensson forming a strong partnership in the center. Seattle also boasts one of the best 'keepers in the league in Stefan Frei, who is a vocal leader from the back and has the game-saving ability to keep the Sounders alive in a tournament. Plus coach Brian Schmetzer is quietly one of the better tacticians in the league. It's hard to find reasons not to like this team.
The San Jose Earthquakes are a bit of a wildcard. They went on an impressive hot streak last year before sputtering out down the home stretch and missing out on the playoffs. Manager Matías Almeyda's man marking system is very physically demanding, and could cause problems in the Florida heat, especially for a side without a ton of depth.
Vancouver Whitecaps round out the group (Dallas was supposed to be the fourth team - no word yet of realignment). They've only brought 23 players to Orlando, with big names like Lucas Cavallini and Fredy Montero sitting out. They also arrived late in Orlando after travel complications. It's a big ask to see them advance.
NEW ENGLAND REVOLUTION: Winner
MONTREAL IMPACT: Second Place
TORONTO FC: Third Place/Possible Advancement
DC UNITED: Eliminated
New England are a very interesting team, and one that could surprise a lot of people. For starters, they're lead by Bruce Arena, arguably the best coach in US history. They also have an impressive roster, with DPs Carles Gil, Adam Buksa and Gustavo Bou forming an impressive attacking trio. Under Arena, they've brought in several new pieces, and will have a clear tactical identity heading in. And not to harp on the whole Arena thing, but he's managed successfully in plenty of tournament and will know how to manage his squad to get the best out of them.
Montreal Impact are a bit of a wildcard, with Thierry Henry showing some exciting signs as a manager before the season was postponed. The break may have allowed him to iron out some details of his tactical identity, and the top end of their roster has plenty of talent. The squad has several promising young players who will be eager to take their chance, and will likely get minutes in this format. The Impact are a strong dark horse candidate.
Toronto FC should be one of the better sides on paper, but they've had plenty of delays traveling to Orlando and have raised concerns about the safety of the Bubble. They have a top coach in Greg Vanney, but the core of their squad is ageing, and Jozy Altidore (arguably their most important player) has been prone to injury. One one hand their veteran core could be a strength. On the other, an ageing roster in the heat after an extended break could be a struggle. If they can get out of the group, though, they'll be dangerous in the knockout rounds.
DC United will grind out a few results. I'm predicting they'll be the best side to be eliminated. There's an argument to be made that coach Ben Olsen is perfect for this type of tournament. But while they have a few enticing players like Julian Gressel and Edison Flores, I have trouble seeing them get out of the group.
SPORTING KANSAS CITY: Winner
COLORADO RAPIDS: Second Place
MINNESOTA UNITED: Third Place/Possible Advancement
REAL SALT LAKE: Eliminated
Sporting KC had an unexpectedly awful 2019 season. A combination of injuries and poor form took their toll, despite an impressive start in CONCACAF Champions League. Despite their struggles, they actually managed to create chances consistently, and finally spent big on a striker to help with their goal scoring issues. Mexican international Alan Pulido scored twice in the first two matches, and looked like the missing piece in their attack. Bolstered by players like Johnny Russell, Gadi Kinda and Ilie Sánchez, and with a core of veteran players, Peter Vermes' side looks poised for a deep run.
Colorado Rapids aren't a favorite to win the competition, but look like a side built for tournament play. Strong defensively with a penchant for set piece scoring, the Denver club looked revitalized under new manager Robin Fraser. Their roster has a good mix of veterans and young players, and with a consistent goal scorer like Kei Kamara, they could take some teams by surprise.
Minnesota United would be listed higher, but they'll be without reigning defender of the year Ike Opara. They still have plenty of options, with Ján Greguš and Ozzie Alonso running the midfield and new signing Luis Amarilla banging in goals before the break, but their ceiling is significantly lowered without Opara.
Real Salt Lake feels like a major question mark. Manager Freddy Juarez took over the side after Mike Petke was fired midseason last year, and has all the makings of a successful coach. Their roster just seems to lake the high-end talent needed to advance from this group.
COLUMBUS CREW SC: Winner
ATLANTA UNITED: Second Place
FC CINCINNATI: Third Place/Possible Advancement
NEW YORK RED BULLS: Eliminated
The Crew were a preseason favorite of mine, and boast arguably the deepest roster in the league. Under new head coach Caleb Porter, the Crew have an established tactical identity and plenty of talent. Darlington Nagbe is still the best rhythm midfielder in the league and the key to Porter's possession-based style, and in DP Lucas Zelarayán, they have a playmaker capable of changing the game. Despite polarizing fans at the national team level, striker Gyasi Zardes is a consistent scorer in MLS and will have plenty of chances to choose from. The Crew should be contenders to win the whole thing.
Atlanta United will be without their talisman, as striker Josef Martínez went down with injury in their first match of the season. Still, the talent on this roster is impressive, with DPs Ezequiel Barco and Pity Martínez joined by players like Eric Remedi, Franco Escobar and Metheus Rossetto. The squad is lead by veterans like Brad Guzan and Jeff Larentowicz, and boasts one of the league's best young centerbacks in Miles Robinson. Even without Josef, this side should make it out of the group.
FC Cincinnati was one of the worst teams in league history last season, and had a rough start to the year, firing manager Ron Jans for racist remarks. However, new manager Jaap Stam brings immediate stability to the group, and will hopefully quickly instill his ideas. Cincinnati also invested heavily in the squad in the offseason, bringing in DPs Yuya Kubo and Jürgen Locadia (who will miss some of the tournament with injury), as well as midfielders Siem de Jong and Haris Medinjanin. Cincinnati won't be a popular pick to advance, but the pieces are their for an improbable run.
New York Red Bulls have Aaron Long, one of the best centerbacks in the league, and they've created one of the best youth development pipelines on the continent. Still, they haven't replaced striker Bradley Wright-Phillips and have questions around their ability to score goals. They could put it together and do quite well in the group, but I'm not counting on it.
HOUSTON DYNAMO: Second Place
PORTLAND TIMBERS: Third Place/Possible Advancement
LA GALAXY: Eliminated
LAFC are the best team in MLS history. Even with Carlos Vela, the best player in the league, sitting out to be with his pregnant wife, LA have one of the best rosters at the tournament. DP wingers Diego Rossi and Brian Rodríguez should be able to pick up plenty of the slack from Vela's absence, and their midfield trio of Mark-Anthony Kaye, Latif Blessing and Eduard Atuesta is the best unit in the league. They also have the league's best coach in Bob Bradley. Anything other than a deep run in this tournament would be a shock.
Houston Dynamo are in a bit of a rebuilding phase, but still have the pieces needed to succeed. Tab Ramos took over the coaching job in the offseason, and will have used the break to work with his players on establishing an identity. DP Alberth Elis is a mercurial talent primed to break out in a tournament, and they have plenty of options off the bench. Plus the heat in Orlando won't be an adjustment. Portland Timbers didn't play inspiring football in their first two matches, but they have an established system and a core group of players. Filipe Mora was brought in to score goals, and although he didn't start on a hot streak, his movement looked good. If he can't do the job, Jeremy Ebobisse is waiting in the wings, and is more than good enough to play the position full time. In midfield, they have a strong mix of grit and creativity. Defensively there are question marks, but overall they are a cohesive unit.
I'm predicting LA Galaxy as the shock exit of the tournament. They have LOADS of talent, but their key players have seemed off the page, and manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto hasn't showed that he can get the best out of his players. In the toughest group of the tournament, they'll need to be perfect to advance.
Runner Up: Philadelphia Union
Golden Boot: Sérgio Santos
Golden Ball: Eduard Atuesta
Golden Glove: Eloy Room Best Young Player: Brendan Aaronson
Winner: Philadelphia Union
Runner Up: Sporting KC
Golden Boot: Alan Pulido
Golden Ball: Alan Pulido
Best Young Player: Mark McKenzie
Winner: Seattle Sounders
Runner Up: Montreal Impact
Golden Boot: Maxi Urruti
Golden Ball: Jordan Morris
Best Young Player: Shandon Hopeau
Winner: Atlanta United
Runner Up: Seattle Sounders
Golden Boot: Raúl Ruidíaz
Golden Ball: Diego Rossi
Golden Glove: Andre Blake
Best Young Player: Ezequiel Barco
Photos courtesy Major League Soccer.