This Wednesday, July 8, marks the return of the first major North American professional sport. Major League Soccer will return inside an Orlando bubble and conduct what they are officially calling the “MLS is Back Tournament”. The tournament will take place at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, near where the NBA will be holding their games upon restart. The format for the MLS Tournament includes 25 of the 26 teams that participate in Major League Soccer. The only team that is not participating as of now is FC Dallas, due to a large number of positive test results from their latest round of Coronavirus testing. Those teams are broken up into 6 groups. Of those 6 groups, 3 teams will advance from Group A, 2 teams will advance from Groups B-F, and 3 Wild Card teams will advance to the knockout stage. Below I will share which teams I think will advance from each group to the knockout stage.
Coming off a 3rd place finish in the Eastern Conference during the 2019 season, 2020 has not been as kind to the Philadelphia Union as they may have hoped. They have only walked away from their first two matches with 1 point, but they have scored enough goals to suggest they were a few bounces away from accumulating more points. Having one of the stronger rosters in the league, I am expecting big things from this team starting with the MLS is Back Tournament leading into the remainder of the season. One key player to watch for the Union is 19 year old Brenden Aaronson. In the first two matches, he has played as a No. 10, which is another name for a Central Attacking Midfielder (CAM). Group A is not as strong as some of the other groups which can only benefit Philadelphia here. I think the Union have the potential to win Group A.
New York City FC
After coming off a first-place finish in the Eastern Conference during the 2019 season, the start of the 2020 season has been slower than anticipated for NYC FC. The Cityzens welcomed in new coach Ronny Deila this season, meaning he did not have much time with his players before the season was postponed in March. The pause in action has given him more time to learn his players and the style in which they play. When the season resumes with this tournament, look for NYC FC to be in good form and do well in this tournament. They are led by Maxi Moralez in their midfield and have a very strong goalkeeper in Sean Johnson. I expect the Cityzens to finish 2nd in Group A.
Seattle Sounders FC
For years now, the Seattle Sounders have been a top team in Major League Soccer. Led by Jordan Morris in attack, this is mostly the same team that won the MLS Cup title last season. With Stefan Frei in net, all the way to the players in attack, the Sounders have arguably the strongest team in the league. If the defense plays well and communicates with the midfield, it could become tough to score against them. In a tournament like this, consistency is key considering the group stage will be the sole indicator of whether or not you advance the knockout stage. Luckily for Seattle, they have reached 3 out of the last 4 MLS Cups, meaning they are a very consistent side. I expect them to win Group B without any issues and make a deep run into this tournament.
Vancouver Whitecaps FC
Other than Seattle, there are many questions within this group. FC Dallas was originally in this group before they officially dropped out of the tournament. It is unknown at this time if the MLS will restructure the groups and add a 4th team. In the meantime, the final spot to advance to the knockout stage from Group B comes between the Whitecaps and the San Jose Earthquakes. Based on last season’s results, and very little changed between these two teams, I think that Vancouver has an edge over San Jose and it will show when the two teams square off in Orlando when the season restarts. I expect Vancouver to finish 2nd in Group B behind Seattle.
Chicago Fire FC
Unlucky for the Chicago Fire, they played their first two games on the road, meaning they were unable to play in front of the majority of their supporters before the season was postponed. Most teams played at least one match at home, but that was not the case for Chicago. In the offseason, the Fire were one of the more active teams in the league bringing in three players that could bolster their squad and help them make a jump in the table. At the beginning of the season, those players did not have much time to build chemistry with the rest of their teammates. With the four-month pause in the season, the chemistry should be much better now and the Fire could become dangerous. If their defense can play well from the start, the Fire will have no issues advancing the knockout round of this tournament. With a lot of uncertainty within the other teams in this group, I think Chicago will do just good enough to be the 3rd team to advance from Group A.
The Impact might be one of the bigger underdog teams in this tournament, but everyone needs to stop sleeping on them. Led by Manager Thierry Henry, Montreal was one of the more organized teams throughout the first two matchdays this season. Henry was a member of the 2003 Arsenal team that went the entire 38 match season unbeaten. The leadership is certainly there, and throughout the early stages of the season, the talent was exactly where it needed to be. Former Tottenham midfielder Victor Wanyama has been the steadying force that Impact was missing over the course of the last few seasons. In addition to Wanyama, Montreal have plenty of talent in attack. Saphir Taider, Bojan, and Max Urruti are all names to watch once the tournament starts. I am expecting the Impact to easily advance into the knockout stages and beyond in this tournament.
Unlike most of the other teams in Major League Soccer, DC United rely on their goalkeeping and defense to win them games. Bill Hamid has been one of the top goalkeepers in the MLS for multiple years now. In addition to Hamid, DC United feature as strong of a center-back duo as you’ll find in Steve Birnbaum and Frederic Brillant. While the attack is still a question mark for this team, the defense is certainly strong enough to keep opposing teams off the scoreboard. DC might be able to sneak out with a few 1-0 wins, but if not, a few draws will certainly be good enough to get them into the next round. I look for DC United to finish 2nd in Group C behind Montreal Impact.
New England Revolution
The Revolution needed the shutdown more than any other team in Major League Soccer. Although it was only 2 weeks into the season, New England was torn apart with injuries and it was not a good situation for them to be in. With the return of Carles Gil in attack, it will open things up for their top goal scorers. They are solid in net with goalkeeper Matt Turner continuing his rise to one of the top keepers in the MLS. An issue for the Revolution could come in the position of defensive midfield. With the loss of Luis Caicedo to injury, New England currently does not have a player who can both tackle and be an effective passer. They are hoping that will not be an issue once the season resumes. Due to the hole in midfield and other teams in their group being stronger, I don’t think the Revolution will finish in the top 2 in Group C. However, I think they will be just good enough to get 1 of the 3 Wild Card spots and advance to the knockout stage.
Before the shutdown, Minnesota United was looking like one of the most balanced teams that took the field in the MLS’s first two weeks. As long as Ozzie Alonso is in the midfield, there is very little reason for concern within this side. With him in position to distribute the ball to attackers Kevin Molino, Ethan Finley, and Luis Amarilla, there is a lot to like about this Minnesota side. The only thing that some people worry about with Minnesota in their possession statistics. They hold a league-low 40.2% of the ball in their matches, but if they are effective on the counter-attack, the possession percentage is nothing big to worry about. With the effectiveness they showed within the first two weeks of the season, I think Minnesota will come out of the group stage on top of Group D.
Sporting Kansas City
Right behind Minnesota United in Group D is Sporting Kansas City. A team that had previously been a consistent finisher in the top of the Western Conference, Sporting KC had a rough 2019 season. Not many people were expecting a down 2019 season for this team, but look for them to come out strong in this tournament. Goalkeeper Tim Melia, defenders Matt Besler and Graham Zusi, and midfielder Roger Espinoza have all been key parts of this team for years now. The leadership within this squad is certainly there, and none of them want a repeat of the 2019 season. In addition to the veteran presence of the players above, we can’t forget Gadi Kinda and Alan Pulido. They are the players who will be key in providing goals for this team to win matches. I think this squad is good enough to move on to the knockout stage, and I expect them to finish 2nd in Group D behind Minnesota United.
The Rapids are a team that needs to be monitored closely heading into the tournament. They opened up the 2020 campaign with 2 wins and showed how lethal they are on set pieces due to the service of Jack Price. Midfielders Younes Namli and Braian Galvan have had the midfield on lock for the Rapids leading them to get a boost on the counter-attack. Being that Group D is most likely going to be the most competitive among the other groups, a 3rd place finish, which I am projecting for the Rapids, will probably be good enough to get them to the knockout stage.
Atlanta United FC
Atlanta United is without a doubt, one of the best teams in Major League Soccer. Currently led by Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco in attack, Atlanta United is the one team you want to avoid at all costs in this tournament. In the midfield, look for Emerson Hyndman, who has done an exceptional job on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. One of the most important parts of a team is the defense, and Atlanta finally has a healthy defense, something they didn’t have when the season started back in February. One thing that could potentially hold Atlanta United back is the loss of star striker Josef Martinez. Martinez was a crucial part of the 2018 team that won the MLS Cup but tore his ACL shortly into the 2019 season. He should be close to a return, but with the depth that Atlanta possesses, there is absolutely no reason to rush him back into action. I expect Atlanta to breeze through Group E into the knockout stage, and easily be one of the favorites to win the tournament.
New York Red Bulls
The club that I grew up rooting for, the New York Red Bulls thrive in an area that many other clubs cannot say the same. The Red Bulls are an outstanding pressing team, meaning they excel in winning the ball back and getting excellent scoring chances because of that. Everything starts in the back with this team, and it just so happens they are led by quality center-backs Aaron Long and St. John’s Alum Tim Parker. One player for the Red Bulls that you cannot sleep on is Daniel Royer, who can score goals at any moment. In the midfield, Kaku provides the creativity piece that is so crucial for every team to have. When he and Royer are in good form, this team can be very dangerous, considering how reliable their defense is. I look for the Red Bulls to finish 2nd in Group E, behind the talented Atlanta United.
Columbus Crew SC
The Columbus Crew were arguably the most active team during the offseason bringing in quite a few new players as they were looking to improve their squad after a disappointing 2019 season. They acquired Darlington Nagbe from Atlanta United as well as signing playmaker Lucas Zelarayan. Gyasi Zardes is their most potent goal scorer, but with Nabe and Zelarayan alongside him, the Crew have plenty of attacking options. Columbus looked solid in the two games they played before the Coronavirus shutdown, but there are some questions about whether they can continue that run of form in this tournament. Most of those questions are about the center of their defense, which is one of the most important positions on the pitch. If the Crew can score at the rate people are expecting them too, they certainly can advance to the knockout stage. I predict them to finish 3rd in Group E but do just enough to claim one of the Wildcard spots.
Along with Atlanta United, Portland Timbers are another favorite to come out of this tournament as champions. Back to front, this team has a lineup full of players that can change the game at any moment in time. Diego Valeri and Sebastian Blanco on the attack are as dangerous as they come in the MLS. In addition to them, you cannot forget about the outstanding job that Diego Chara has done for this team in defensive midfield. A player in his position must understand his responsibilities, and Chara is simply one of the best in the business at what he does. The time off was needed for Portland as they looked a little lost in their first two matches. I expect the Timbers to come out firing and show the rest of the league they used their time off wisely and improved as a team. There is no doubt in my mind this team will advance to the knockout stage, it is just a matter of whether they will finish 1st or 2nd in their group.
Los Angeles Football Club
The most dangerous team in the attacking half of the field is heading to Orlando, ready to show the rest of the league their potential. With 2019 MLS MVP Carlos Vela not going to Orlando with the team, some people are doubting whether or not they will have success in this tournament. I am not one of those doubters. Brian Rodrigues and Diego Rossi normally make up the front 3 with Vela, but look for Bryce Duke to see some increased activity in his absence. Behind the outstanding attack, LAFC also boasts one of the most cohesive midfield units in the league. Mark-Anthony Kaye, Latif Blessing, and Eduard Atuesta play well with each other, it helps LAFC in many ways. When you have a midfield as dominant as those three, it is game-changing. As long as those three play in peak form, I think LAFC will do just enough to advance into the knockout stage of this tournament.