After an almost four months furlough, the MLS will return on July 8 with the much publicized “MLS is Back” Tournament. All group stage games will count towards regular season standings, but any knockout round games will not, with the winner of the tournament being guaranteed a place in the 2021 Concacaf Champions League. Winning players will be eligible for a share of the $1.1 million prize pool.
With the background info being given, let’s dive right in.
(Orlando City SC, Inter Miami CF, New York City FC, Philadelphia Union, Chicago Fire FC, Nashville SC)
All groups have four teams, excluding group A, who have been given six. But, along with that, three teams will be given entry into the next round, unlike other groups who only have two.
This group includes both expansion franchises; one of which I believe will advance to the knockout stage, that being Inter Miami. This is a star studded team that likely would have beaten D.C. United back in March if not for a red card; their only other contest being a loss to LAFC in their inaugural game. With Rodolfo Pizarro leading a vicious attack and the ultimate ironman Luis Robles in net, don’t count this team out by any means.
LAFC opened up their season with hard fought wins over Miami and Philadelphia, another team I expect to make it out of this group. Philadelphia has been slowly building through its academy for a long time and it’s starting to pay off. Academy graduates Brendan Aaronson and Mark McKenzie are centerpieces to a team littered with underrated talent. Expect head coach Jim Curtin to get the best out of this squad and possibly take the group.
Group A is a tough group, but for me Nashville doesn’t have enough talent or chemistry to advance. New York doesn’t have a true goalscorer, they have some great defensive pieces, but I’m not a fan of what their attack has shown me thus far. Therefore, this one comes down to Chicago and Orlando- I’m betting on Orlando. They have a star in Nani (yes, the one that played for Manchester United) and Dom Dwyer, who is one of the league’s most consistent strikers. Don’t be shocked if you hear the name Daryl Dike emerge; the 6-foot-2 rookie striker has the physical profile to be a problem for any defense.
Automatically Advancing: Inter Miami CF, Philadelphia Union, Orlando City SC
(Seattle Sounders, FC Dallas (left tournament), Vancouver Whitecaps, San Jose Earthquakes)
With FC Dallas dropping out of the tournament and the San Jose Earthquakes showing a constant inability to build around two of the league’s best talents in Jackson Yueill and Chris Wondolowski, this one is obvious; Seattle and Vancouver are advancing.
Seattle has a better top-to-bottom roster than the Whitecaps and have been one of the league’s juggernauts for a decade; I expect them to now cruise through the group stage.
Automatically Advancing: Seattle Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps
(Toronto FC, New England Revolution, Montreal Impact, D.C. United)
This may be the most entertaining and competitive group in the tournament. Each team is in the top eight of the Eastern Conference and has shown flashes of potential. But in the end there are two teams who stand above the rest in my eyes: Toronto and D.C.
Toronto who has been a consistent fixture in the MLS Cup Finals have taken four points in its first two games and made their defense more formidable over the offseason after the addition of former U.S. Men’s National Team centre back Omar Gonzales. The team is still one of the best in the Eastern Conference.
New England has surely flashed potential, but the talent isn’t there yet for the rebuilding Revolution. I believe there’s a foundation and a proven coach in Bruce Arena definitely helps. But in this group New England is a clear fourth.
That means this group comes down to D.C. and Montreal. Thierry Henry and the Impact were one of the league’s early surprises as they stood in second place when play stopped. But we have seen a new coach start out hot just for the team to cool down. For an inexperienced manager this is a tough situation and I’m just not ready to commit to Montreal outlasting a D.C. United team that has an experienced head coach and is filled with elite veteran talent like Paul Arriola, Bill Hamid and Julian Gressel, among many others.
Automatically Advancing: Toronto FC and D.C. United
(Real Salt Lake, Sporting Kansas City, Colorado Rapids, Minnesota FC)
With the top three teams in the Western Conference all in the same group the standings could look different very quickly. Real Salt Lake is the outlier as they sit in ninth, but even they are a disallowed goal away from finding themselves in the top seven, meaning this group could be a gauntlet.
Sporting Kansas City is a squad filled with great balance and has dominated this far and I expect that to continue. Their +6 goal differential (seven goals scored – one conceded) is extremely impressive. Manager Peter Vermes usually puts out one of the league’s most consistent sides and that consistency should aid them in this tournament.
I’m going with the underdog in Real Salt Lake, they have an extremely solid defense and have two of the most underrated midfielders in the league with Kyle Beckerman and Albert Rusnak. They may be the lowest in the standings, but anything can happen.
This group was easily the hardest to predict and should give some great competition.
Automatically Advancing: Sporting Kansas City and Real Salt Lake
(Atlanta United FC, FC Cincinnati, New York Red Bulls, Columbus Crew SC)
Despite a roster overhaul this past offseason, Atlanta United sits atop the Eastern Conference standings. But this team is missing its best player in former MLS MVP Josef Martinez. But, this group is still weak enough for Atlanta to sneak through as its second seed.
The first seed will be awarded to the Columbus Crew who built a deep midfield with the likes of Darlington Nagbe and Artur, just to solidify it with a transfer for Lucas Zelarayan. Zelarayan was a club record signing from Mexican side Tigres UANL and is rapidly becoming one of the league’s most exciting playmakers. Expect him to solidify himself as one of the league’s superstars in this tournament.
The omission of the Red Bulls may be a surprise to some. But hear me out, they’re not that good. The team has some great players, but didn’t adequately replace departing talent. Sporting Director Denis Hamlett stripped their roster down it’s core and now head coach Chris Armas is dealing with young options all over the pitch. Youngsters Patrick Seagrist and Kyle Duncan are in starting fullback roles that have been previously filled by borderline All-Stars, some of who now find themselves playing in Europe. Offensively the Red Bulls have upside, but don’t have a truly reliable goalscorer for me to get excited about. I wouldn’t fully count out the team as the centre back pairing of Tim Parker and Aaron Long along with Kaku’s creativity gives the Red Bulls a chance to win any game.
Automatically Advancing: Columbus Crew and Atlanta United
(LAFC, LA Galaxy, Houston Dynamo, Portland Timbers)
LAFC will be without reigning MLS MVP Carlos Vela due to personal concerns, but that doesn’t mean that the team will all of a sudden be laboring without him. LAFC is coached by former United States National Team coach Bob Bradley, who is still one of the best managers the league has to offer and has a plethora of young talent. This tournament will give the world a chance to see just how good attackers Diego Rossi and Brian Rodriguez are. As for other sources of goalscoring, LAFC has Adama Diomande who had eight goals and seven assists in 25 appearances (15 starts) last season and former MLS MVP Bradley Wright-Phillips, who Bradley said should be ready to feature for the squad. This LAFC side is still dangerous and a contender to take the whole tournament.
The Houston Dynamo are in a rebuild and are just kind of here in this group (on the brightside I am a huge fan of Tab Ramos as a manager and team-builder), leaving this group between the LA Galaxy and the Portland Timbers.
The Galaxy had high expectations after the signing of Javier Chicharito, but have failed to impress in the early stages of his tenure. On the brightside Portland hasn’t impressed either. Both teams have high potential, but it’s a matter of which team steps up to the plate. When looking at a 50/50 the tie-breaker usually comes in coaching, and while Giovanni Savarese has done a nice job with Portland, the Galaxy are coached by one of the most successful South American coaches in recent memory: Guillermo Barros Schleotto. Barros Schelotto won two league titles with Argentine giants Boca Juniors before departing to America. I expect him to right the ship with the Galaxy, like he did with Boca Juniors and get the best use of his talent starting with this tournament.
Automatically Advancing: LAFC and LA Galaxy
Note: The three highest ranked teams that don’t automatically advance will also advance to the knockout rounds.
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