MLS Is Back Tournament: Groups A & B
Sports are slowly starting to return to the United States.
The NWSL's return to action tournament and The Basketball Tournament have been whetting the appetite of sports fans, and on Wednesday the MLS got in on the action. The MLS is Back Tournament kicked off from the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando. The "World Cup style" tournament hasn't been without issues though, as FC Dallas and Nashville SC have both been removed from the tournament because of a high number of players testing positive for COVID-19.
Originally there was going to be six groups in the tournament, with Group A containing six teams. Because of the removal of FC Dallas and Nashville SC, Chicago Fire FC has been shifted to Group B and now each of the six groups features four teams. The knockout round is slated to begin on July 25 and the final is set for August 11.
MLS Is Back Tournament: Group AMLS
Orlando City SC
After a disappointing first year in Orlando, head coach Oscar Pareja is looking for some better results this year. The first two matches of the year didn't show much improvement from last year, as the Lions had to settle for a draw with Real Salt Lake before falling 2-1 at Colorado. Those results might not be indicative of what Orlando City SC will offer the rest of the year, as Nani and Dom Dwyer weren't available for the contest.
It looked to be more of the same for the Lions in the tournament opener, as they fell behind Inter Miami 1-0, but Pareja's squad didn't quit. Chris Mueller opened up the scoring for Orlando City in the 70th minute before Nani lived up to his designated player status by burying the game-winner in the seventh minute of stoppage time in the second half.
Dwyer and Nani are going to have to carry Orlando City if the "home team" wants to make a deep run in the tournament. The Lions will likely make it out of the group stage, but it's hard to see them winning a game in the knockout round unless they get some big efforts from a number of other players beside Dwyer and Nani.
Earning points against the Philadelphia Union hasn't been easy in recent years. Last year Philadelphia registered 58 points and defeated New York Red Bulls in extra time before falling to Atlanta United in the conference semifinals. It was the third time in the last four years that Jim Curtain's squad has made it to the MLS playoffs.
Philadelphia didn't get any favors in the draw, as they were matched up with New York City FC, who finished first in the Eastern Conference last year. The U weren't scared though, as they picked up a 1-0 win thanks to Alejandro Bedoya's goal in the 63rd minute, along with some huge saves from goalkeeper Andre Blake. Not only is Philadelphia solid all the way around the pitch, but they are made even stronger by having Blake between the sticks. It wouldn't be a surprise to see The U make some noise in the knockout round.
New York City FC
The first place team from the Eastern Conference last season has had a nightmare start to the season. NYCFC opened up this year's campaign by seeing defender Maxine Chanot sent off in the third minute of a 1-0 loss to Columbus. Things haven't gotten much better for the Blues since, losing their other two matches by the same scoreline. The latest of those setbacks came in their first group stage game on Thursday morning against Philadelphia.
Last year NYCFC saw Heber, Alexandru Mitrita, and Valentin Castellanos all score at least 10 goals, which makes their scoreless start to the season even more puzzling. Now NYCFC has to get their act together quickly if they want to avoid getting bounced from the tournament in the group stage.
Inter Miami CF
It has felt like decades since the MLS announced that a team in Miami would be returning to the league. Actually it was 2014 when an investment group led by David Beckham was awarded a team, but it took until 2020 for the team to take the field because of issues with stadium proposal.
The Herons are still looking for their first MLS win, but they are getting closer. In a March 7 loss to D.C. United, Rodolfo Pizzaro scored a goal in the second minute to give Inter Miami a 1-0 lead. Diego Alonso's squad would fail to win the match, but they did hold the lead for over 50 minutes.
Wednesday night's match against Orlando City SC again saw the Herons take a 1-0 lead, only to fail to earn the victory. While the setback stung, an even bigger loss for Inter Miami was when Andres Reyes was stretchered off in the 51st minute following a clash with Orlando City's Dom Dwyer.
MLS Is Back Tournament: Group BMLS
Seattle Sounders FC
One of the favorites coming into this tournament was the Seattle Sounders, but Brian Schmetzer's squad haven't quite lived up to expectations. The Sounders were held scoreless in a draw with San Jose on Friday night, and followed that performance up with an even bigger dud, falling 2-1 to a Chicago Fire team that they had beaten in their season opener.
After missing the 2018 due to a knee injury, Jordan Morris returned to action for the Sounders, Morris returned to score 13 goals last year. Most of the damage Morris did came later in the year, scoring eight of those goals after July. Morris got his season off to a strong start, scoring two goals in the opener against Chicago.
Morris won't have to do it all himself, since Seattle also has proven scorers Raul Ruidiaz, Christian Roldan, and Nicolas Lodeiro on the roster. Seattle is going to need their offensive pieces to shine when they take on Vancouver in their final game of the group stage, or they could be headed home a lot earlier than they had expected.
San Jose Earthquakes
San Jose looked primed for a playoff spot heading into the final couple months of the 2019 season, but a 2-9-1 record in their final 12 matches left the Earthquakes on the outside looking in. Chris Wondolowski scored 15 goals to lead San Jose, but there wasn't much of note on the squad aside from the aging striker. Wondolowski is back for his 17th MLS season but he'll need some help if the Earthquakes want to make some noise.
San Jose showed some scoring punch in the first two matches of the season, scoring four goals, but they were only able to earn one point from those matches. The style of head coach Matias Almeyda might not translate well in the heat and humidity that'll be seen in Orlando, as his man-marking style forces his players to use a lot of energy.
The Earthquakes were able to pass their first test, drawing Seattle on Friday night to earn a point. San Jose had a little luck on their side even before the tournament began, as FC Dallas was removed from the tournament. Instead, the Earthquakes will play a Chicago team that has a lot of new pieces instead. Add that to a matchup with Vancouver, who is one of the worst teams in MLS, and even though Almeyda's tatics sometimes leave a lot to be desired, it likely won't keep San Jose from the knockout stage.
Vancouver Whitecaps FC
One of the biggest longshots in this tournament is Vancouver, who finished last in the Western Conference last year. The Whitecaps have missed the playoffs in three of the last four seasons, and it's hard to see them making it back anytime soon. Vancouver did set a club-record transfer fee to bring in forward Lucas Cavallini in from Puebla of Liga MX, but he'll still need someone to set him up and put him in position to score.
The Whitecaps did surprise some people with a 1-0 win over LA Galaxy in their second match of the year, but it's hard to buy into what they are doing until results like that are seen on a more consistent basis. If Vancouver is going to make it to the knockout round, it's likely they'll need to get through as one of the third-place teams in the group stage with a higher point total.
Chicago Fire FC
Chicago has to be a little salty before they've even played a match in the tournament. The Fire went from playing two expansion teams to having to play the defending champs for the second time in 2020, as well as a couple other scrappy teams from the Western Conference. The Fire dropped their first meeting with the Sounders 2-1 in Seattle in their season opener, and followed that result up with a 1-1 draw against New England.
Gone are Nemanja Nikolic and Nicolas Gaitan, who each scored 12 goals last year, but C.J. Sapong is still with the squad. Chicago bolstered their midfield by adding Alvaro Medran from Valencia, as well as Luka Stojanovic and Gaston Gimenez, which should help Raphael Wicky's team a good shot at making it to the knockout round.