MLS Is Back Tournament: Groups C & D
Our MLS Is Back Tournament premiere rolls along with a look at groups C and D.
Previously, we looked at groups A and B here.
MLS is Back Tournament Group CMLS
For a franchise that has made the MLS Cup Final in three of the last four years, Toronto FC has to feel like a bit of a mess right now. First, Toronto was delayed in getting to Florida due to additional COVID-19 testing, pushing back their first match against D.C. United from Friday to Sunday. Then, the Sunday morning match was pushed back to Monday morning because an unnamed Toronto player tested positive for COVID-19. As if that wasn't enough, Toronto blew a 2-0 lead to a D.C. United team that played the whole second half with 10 men.
The pause on the regular season did help the Reds since it gave Michael Bradley additional time to recover after offseason ankle surgery. Now Toronto can focus on getting Jozy Altidore back on the pitch. Altidore didn't play in Monday's match, but expect to see the striker more as the tournament moves on.
For many squads, it would be a huge setback not have Altidore on the pitch. That isn't the case with Toronto, as the Reds have some other quality offensive options. Ayo Akinola bagged a brace against United on Monday, while Alejandro Pozuelo has scored 13 goals in 33 appearances with the club. As long as Toronto's defensive doesn't fall apart like they did on Monday, it's going to be hard to keep the Reds out of the knockout stage.
New England Revolution
New England's biggest advantage doesn't even lace up the boots. Bruce Arena is plenty comfortable with this type of tournament. Not only did Arena lead the United States to two World Cup appearances, but he also has led the USMNT to three Gold Cup titles. Arena was hired in mid-May by New England after the club stumbled out of the gates in 2019, losing eight of their first 12 matches. The rest of the way, the Revolution lost just three of their final 22 regular season matches. New England earned a spot in the playoffs, falling to Atlanta in the opening round.
The offensive attack of the Revs features some names that might not be familiar to the casual fan, but Carles Gil, Gustavo Boa, and Cristian Penilla were a huge reason for in-season resurgence for New England. Gil not only scored 10 goals last year, but the Spaniard also added 14 assists. Boa scored the lone goal in Thursday night's win over Montreal.
The Revolution didn't get any favors with the group they were placed in. Even though some of the odds might have been stacked against them heading into action, New England has the talent and coaching to make a run in the knockout stage. Never bet against Bruce Arena, as he always finds a way to get the most out of his players.
New manager, same Montreal Impact. After an ugly start to his managerial career at Monaco, Thierry Henry signed a two-year deal with Montreal in November. The Impact not only started the MLS season with four points in two games, but they also moved into the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals. The pause on the season couldn't have come at a worse time for the improving Impact.
Of course once Montreal was able to get back on the pitch, they looked listless in a 1-0 loss to a New England team they had defeated 2-1 in the season opener. The surprise of the short season for Montreal has been Maxi Urruti, who has three goals already after scoring just four all last season. It's hard to see Urruti keeping up with this pace. If Montreal is going to be successful, they'll need more contributions from Bojan Krkic, Saphir Tarder, and Orji Okwonkwo. How the Impact respond to the match against rival Toronto in Thursday night's match will determine if they have any hope of making it to the knockout stage.
D.C. United finished fifth in the Eastern Conference last year before falling to Toronto in extra time in the playoffs. There has been plenty of turnover with Ben Olsen's squad since the loss in October. The biggest name not returning from last year's roster is Wayne Rooney, who decided to return to England to finish out his legendary career after appearing in 52 matches and scoring 25 goals for United.
To try and fill Rooney's production, United added Julian Gressel from Atlanta and Federico Higuain from Columbus. Higuain might not have a lot left in the tank, but he has already made an impact, scoring in the 84th minute on Monday to spark the comeback against Toronto.
While Gressel has struggled to find his footing with United, Ben Olsen has gotten a couple goals this year from an unexpected source. After scoring the game-winner in the second match of the season against Miami, center back Frederic Brillant scored the equalizer in stoppage time against Toronto on Monday. If United can get their attack clicking, they could make a deep run in the knockout stage.
MLS is Back Tournament Group DMLS
Real Salt Lake
It has been a pretty wild last year for Real Salt Lake. Mike Petke was relieved of his duties as head coach last year after an incident where Petke used homophobic language towards an official. Freddy Juarez was named interim head coach on August 11, and his handling of the team throughout the rest of the season and playoffs was enough for Real Salt Lake to remove the interim tag from Juarez's title.
After finishing third in the Western Conference last season, RSL's start to this year was a little underwhelming, registering two draws before the season was paused. Coming into the tournament, there was some concerns about where Real Salt Lake was going to get goals from, but some of those concerns were soothed in the first match, as RSL scored two goals in the win over the Colorado Rapids.
What is going to determine just how far Real Salt Lake goes in this tournament is going to be the play of the defense and goalkeeper. Nick Rimando retired last season, leaving Zac MacMath at goalie for RSL. So far there hasn't been an issue at goalie, but it remains to be seen how MacMath will respond when the pressure is turned up. If the transition to the new guard at goalkeeper is seamless, Real Salt Lake is going to be tough to beat.
Sporting Kansas City
Sporting Kansas City is coming off a season in which they missed the playoffs, which is an oddity for Peter Vermes' team, who had made the playoffs in eight straight seasons prior to last year. To try and make sure the absence from the playoffs only lasts one year, Sporting Kansas City brought in Alan Pulido. The striker from Mexico has already made an impact, scoring two goals in three matches this season.
Before heading to Orlando, Sporting Kansas City opened up the season red-hot, winning their first two matches by a combined score of 7-1. It looked like SKC was on their way to a third straight win in 2020, but goaltender Tim Melia was given a red card in the 74th minute. The rest of the match was a nightmare for Sporting Kansas City, as they scored an own goal in the 92nd minute to allow Minnesota to tie the match, and then SKC lost their shot at earning any points when Minnesota scored five minutes later.
The setback against Minnesota could be the difference as to whether SKC moves on to the knockout stage or heads home in a couple weeks. While Sporting Kansas City has some room for error since there are some third place teams that will move on to the knockout stage, now they can't afford any more collapses in their final two group stage matches.
Another squad in this group who has a coach in their first full year after finishing out last season as an interim head coach is the Colorado Rapids. Robin Fraser was Colorado's third coach last season, replacing Conor Casey, who replaced Anthony Hudson. The Rapids undoubtedly performed the best under Fraser in 2019, winning five of their seven matches after Fraser took over.
Prior to Sunday night's loss to Real Salt Lake, Colorado started out 2020 like they finished 2019. The Rapids won their first two matches of the season, both by a 2-1 scoreline, with all four goals coming from different players. One of those goal scorers was Kei Kamara, who scored 14 goals last season. Kamara now has recorded at least 10 goals in each of the last three seasons.
If Colorado was in any other group in this tournament it'd be almost a no-brainer to predict them to move on to the knockout round. Unfortunately the Rapids were drawn into the toughest group, and suffered a loss to their rival in their first match. It's not out of the question for Colorado to advance but they find themselves in a pretty deep hole.
Minnesota United FC
The third season was the charm for Minnesota United FC. After missing the playoffs in their first two seasons in MLS, the Loons finally broke through last year, finishing fourth in the Western Conference, Unfortunately for Minnesota the playoff run was very short, as they were downed by the LA Galaxy in the opening round.
The Loons know they have a lot more to prove this year and they did a great job at putting the rest of the league on notice in their first two matches, winning both contests by a combined score of 8-3. For quite a while on Sunday night it looked like those first two results might be a little smoke and mirrors, as Minnesota was stymied by Sporting Kansas City. The Loons proved it's not over till it's over though, scoring both of their goals during second half stoppage time to shock SKC 2-1.
Moving on from Group D is no easy task, but Minnesota already has a leg-up on their competition thanks to the comeback win on Sunday night. Kevin Molino already has three goals on the season, including the game-winner on Sunday night. Watch out for Molino to make more noise as Adrian Heath hopes his team has a deep run in the tournament in them.