Our journey around the groups of the MLS Is Back Tournament finishes up with a look at Groups E & F.
MLS is Back Tournament Group EMLS
Atlanta United FC
Entering their fourth season in the MLS, Atlanta United FC has taken the league by storm. Not only did Atlanta win the 2018 MLS Cup, but they are one of the most exciting teams in the league. Atlanta's fun factor did take a bit of hit earlier this year, when Josef Martinez tore his ACL in the season opener against Nashville SC.
Now Atlanta has to try and replace the production of Martinez, who scored 77 goals in his first three seasons in Atlanta, including 27 goals last year. Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco should get first cracks at trying to fill Martinez's shoes. Barco scored in each of Atlanta's first two games before the regular season was paused, while Martinez is still looking for his first goal of the year.
Atlanta's first game in the group stage left a lot to be desired. New York Red Bulls scored early on Atlanta to put the Five Stripes in a hole which they wouldn't be able to crawl out of. Frank de Boer's squad had nearly 70% of the possession in the match but they just couldn't find the back of the net, which is something they'll need to do if they want to make it to the knockout stage. Atlanta has a chance to get back on track on Thursday when they face FC Cincinnati.
To say FC Cincinnati needs a lot of work might be an understatement. The orange and blue are just starting their second year in MLS, so it's understandable as to why they haven't seen much success yet. Last year FC Cincinnati posted a 6-22-6 record, and things haven't been any better this year, as Cincinnati has dropped their first three matches. The latest of those losses coming on Saturday night, when they were humbled 4-0 by rival Columbus in the Hell is Real derby.
It's going to take some sort of miracle for FC Cincinnati to move on to the knockout round. New head coach Jaap Stam has only been on the job since late May, so he is still trying to familiarize himself with the players he has to work with. The trip to Orlando to this tournament could bring the club together, but FC Cincinnati still has some work to do to find their identity.
New York Red Bulls
This year has already seen a bit of a changing of the guard with New York Red Bulls. Gone are the club's leading goal scorer and the starting goalkeeper from the last seven years. Bradley Wright-Phillips notched 108 MLS goals for the Metros, while Luis Robles recorded 72 clean sheets in 241 appearances. Trying to fill the scoring void left by Wright-Phillips will be Daniel Royer, Kaku, and Cristian Casseres. The trio of attackers have each scored a goal this year.
After starting the season with a win and a draw, NYRB recorded a huge victory on Saturday night, defeating Atlanta United FC 1-0. The Metros took a lead in the fourth minute thanks to a Florian Valot goal. Following the goal, New York dug in defensively, keeping the high-powered Atlanta attack off the scoresheet. With the victory, it's going to take a pretty big meltdown for NYRB to miss the knockout stage, especially with a fixture against FC Cincinnati still left on the schedule before the end of the group stage.
Columbus Crew SC
Columbus has all the makings of the most improved team in MLS this year. After finishing 10th in the Eastern Conference last year, the Crew have come out of the gates strong. Their latest win came on Saturday night, when they decimated FC Cincinnati 4-0. Lucas Zelarayan has been one of the most impactful additions so far this year. The Argentine scored the lone goal in a 1-0 win over NYCFC in the season opener. Zelarayan up the scoring on Saturday night against Cincinnati with a beautiful free kick, and followed it up with an assist later in the match.
The attack of the Crew isn't just Zelarayan. Gyasi Zardes scored two goals on Saturday night after burying 13 goals last year. Darlington Nagbe has added a steadying presence to midfield after spending the last two years with Atlanta. Pedro Santos scored 11 goals last year, but wasn't even named in Saturday night's squad. All this to say, if the defense of the Crew can hold up, the offense will give them plenty of support, making Columbus a very tough team to beat.
MLS is Back Tournament Group FMLS
Los Angeles FC
Last season left Los Angeles FC with unfinished business. In just their second season in the MLS, LAFC finished with the best record in the league, amassing 72 points before being upset by Seattle in the playoffs. Carlos Vela scored 36 total goals, establishing himself as the most dangerous attacker in the MLS. Vela has decided to opt out of this tournament though, as he has elected to stay home with his pregnant wife.
Even though LAFC won't have Vela for this tournament, Bob Bradley has a number of options that are more than capable of making up for the loss of Vela's production. Bradley Wright-Phillips was added from New York Red Bulls, and has already paid dividends, scoring in Monday's 3-3 draw with Houston. Los Angeles also has Diego Rossi, who scored 17 goals last year.
The Black and Gold have to be disappointed by only drawing with Houston on Monday night, but at least the squad has shown they can score without Vela on the pitch. The schedule for LAFC in their final two group games isn't easy, especially with "El Trafico" agains LA Galaxy slated for Saturday night. Even though they'll be tested against their rivals and Portland, smart money is on LAFC to move on to the knockout stage.
It seems some of the biggest soccer stars in the world find their way to Los Angeles to play for the Galaxy. Zlatan Ibrahimovic spent the last two years with the club, scoring 31 goals last season. There wasn't much offense from the Galaxy aside from Zlatan, as the rest of the team only scored 32 goals. Ibrahimovic has moved back to Europe, which forced the club to bring in Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez.
The Galaxy are still searching for their first win this season, drawing their season opener against Houston before falling to Vancouver in March and Portland on Monday night in Orlando. Los Angeles fell behind the Timbers 2-0, but was able to pull one goal back thanks to Hernandez. Los Angeles threatened the Timbers throughout the game, but they just didn't have the finishing touch needed to earn any points.
Monday night's setback puts the Galaxy at the bottom of the group. With a huge match against rival Los Angeles FC set for Saturday night, the Galaxy are going to need to at least earn a point if they want to see the next round of the competition. Los Angeles needs to hope Hernandez can build off his goal late in the match on Monday night, or else the Galaxy could be headed home earlier than they had hoped.
After winning the first two MLS Cup titles, Houston has really fallen on hard times. The Dynamo have now missed the playoffs in five of the last six seasons. The first step Houston has taken to try and right the ship was to hire Tab Ramos, who has spent the last eight seasons coaching the United States Under-20 National Team. To go along with Ramos, the Dynamo brought in Darwin Quintero to bolster the attack, while trading for Zarek Valentin to add some veteran leadership to the defense.
So far this year Houston has done everything but win. The Dynamo actually held a 3-1 lead over Los Angeles FC before blowing the lead and settling for a 3-3 draw. Memo Rodriguez scored two goals against LAFC, while Alberth Elis scored his second goal of the season. If Houston can challenge their final two opponents in the group stage like they challenged LAFC, the Dynamo could surprise many and move on to the knockout stage.
Portland Timbers FC
Round out this group is Giovanni Savarese's Portland Timbers. After falling to Minnesota in their first game of the year, the Timbers have notched wins over Nashville and LA Galaxy, who they defeated 2-1 on Monday night. After scoring 11 goals last year, Jeremy Ebobisse opened the scoring on Monday night, while Sebastian Blanco netted the game-winning goal just a few minutes later.
The most notable Timbers players is Diego Valeri, who scored eight goals and was credited with 16 assists last season. The hardest working player on the roster is Diego Chara, who is a fixture in midfield for Portland. Chara received a boost when his brother, Yimmy, was acquired in the offseason. They are just the eight pair of brothers to play together in the MLS.
Portland got a critical win in their first group stage match, which should help them in the quest to make the knockout stage. The Timbers are still looking for more consistent goal scoring after the Brian Fernandez experiment last season didn't work out, but they have the experience that should see them through to the knockout stage.
It's another eventful week in the NFL.
Four teams -- the Jets, Falcons, Saints, and 49ers -- are the first teams to get a bye week. After Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers narrowly escaped Thursday Night Football with a 28-22 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, the reigning Super Bowl champs are the first team with five wins in the league. Who will join them on Sunday? We know that we'll get at least a second five-win team since the 4-1 Ravens are hosting the 4-1 Chargers. That is going to be an epic battle, so let's start with that clash of AFC contenders. Welcome to our Week 6 NFL Best Bets.
Playing on the road is a difficult task for any team, but if any team can escape with a victory, it's Justin Herbert and the Chargers. This isn't the Chargers of the last decade. This team is winning the close battles. Herbert is playing at an MVP level this season and already has led this team to big-time wins over the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Browns -- two of the top teams in the AFC. This L.A. team is deep at the skill positions, can rush the passer, has an improved offensive line and a great young coach. What's not to like?
All that said, Lamar Jackson seems to be playing as he did during his 2019 MVP campaign. Not to mention, Marquise "Hollywood" Brown is actually catching passes. He eclipsed 100 yards last week and scored two touchdowns (including the game-winning catch in overtime). Simply put, this is a tough team to bet against. It did take last-second heroics for the Ravens to beat the winless Lions and a pretty pedestrian Colts team. Overall, Baltimore hasn't faced a test like this yet this season. Take the points and the better overall squad. Chargers may win this game, but if they don't, they are not going to lose by more than a field goal.
PICK: Chargers +3.5
It's been a tough start to the season for the Chiefs. They had great odds to return to the Super Bowl and are now last in the AFC West heading into Week 16 with a 2-3 record. They desperately need this game. This is a great opportunity for the Chiefs to prove they are still elite by defeating a team that made the postseason last year on the road. The Chiefs are going to turn it around against a Washington defense that is allowing the sixth-most passing yards and second-most passing touchdowns this season. Patrick Mahomes is going to blow up. Tyreek Hill is going to dominate. Travis Kelce is going to continue to provide a steady source of receptions down the middle of the field. As long as the Chiefs' offensive line holds against Chase Young, it's going to be a long day for Washington's defense. Betting on Mahomes to right the ship isn't a really difficult choice.
PICK: Chiefs -6.5
Yes, the Texans are one of the worst teams in the league. Betting on them on the road against a divisional rival might seem crazy at first. However, the Texans are 7-3 against the spread as underdogs in their last 10 games. Plus, the Colts are emotional after completely giving away the game against the Ravens in which they blew a 22-3 lead late in the game. This is going to cause a bit of a hangover in that locker room. When New England suffered a terrible loss against Tom Brady and the Bucs, the Texans managed to cover the spread the following week. Look for history to repeat itself. Texans coach David Culley has Houston playing hard in spite of its lack of talent and quarterback Davis Mills appeared to take a step forward last week against the Pats. Houston has played pretty good pass defense, too. The Texans have allowed only seven passing TDs this season.
PICK: Texans +9
Sunday night will be an interesting matchup to watch as Geno Smith will make his first start in four years as the Seahawks travel to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers. I hate betting on Ben Roethlisberger, but it's hard to envision the Seahawks covering the spread without the services of Russell Wilson. And as much as I think Big Ben should hang up his cleats, you have to give him credit for the way he dominated a solid Broncos defense last week. Roethlisberger looked better than he did earlier in the season and was able to get the ball to his playmakers -- Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, and running back Najee Harris. Seattle's defense is one of the worst in the league and their secondary is even worse than their front seven. Look for the Steelers to light up Seattle in the passing game.
PICK: Steelers -5
Both of these offenses can put up a lot of points, though they go about it very differently. The Browns are a run-heavy team, and even though they will be without the services of Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt is more than capable of getting the job done. Meanwhile, Arizona's offense runs through electric quarterback Kyler Murray. Murray is able to move the chains with his legs but he isn't afraid to toss the ball either. He loves getting his guys involved and his weapons are elite in DeAndre Hopkins, Rondale Moore, and Christian Kirk.
The Browns are coming off an 89-point slugest with the Chargers and hit the OVER in their other game against a high-end offense in a 33-29 loss to the Chiefs. Meanwhile, the Cardinals have scored 30-plus points in four of five games this year. Smash the OVER.
PICK: OVER 49.5
Week 2 of the NFL was full of breakout performances, thrilling finishes and potentially the start of the Justin Fields era in the NFC North as the Bears' win over the Bengals finds them in first place in the division.
We cap off the week with a Monday Night Football showdown between the Packers and the Lions with the winner finding themselves tied for first in the North. The Packers put up an absolute dud of a performance last week against the Saints in Week 1 while the Lions looked surprisingly effective while playing catch-up against the West-leading 49ers. The expectations for these two teams couldn't have been further apart coming into the season but with matching 0-1 starts on the books, I think there are a couple of interesting props and roster construction angles to exploit.
NFL DFS Showdown Picks
*Prices are from DraftKings
Captain: TE T.J. Hockenson, Detroit Lions ($9,600) ($14,400)
I'm normally not a fan of playing a tight end in the captain spot, but T.J. Hockenson is not your average tight end. He finished 2020 with an elite 18% target share in the Lions' offense and picked up right where he left off in Week 1, finishing with an 18.2% share on 50 routes run last week. Hockenson has always carried premium TD upside as a red-zone target but what was most encouraging about last week was that he ran nearly 55% of his routes out of the slot, leaving him a matchup against Chandon Sullivan, who's allowing a 67% catch rate in his coverage. In a game where the Lions are projected to be down early, expect Hockenson to get fed once again. His red-zone utilization gives him enough juice to take the captain's chair in my builds.
Core Consideration: QB Jared Goff, Detroit Lions ($10,000)
Two principles I take into Showdown slates apply to this play. Generally speaking, if I have a pass-catcher as my captain, I'm finding a way to get their QB into a flex spot. The second is that your build needs to tell a story. Mine is that the Packers come out with something to prove after getting embarrassed in Week 1 and that we'll likely see upwards of 50 pass attempts from Jared Goff as he attempts to mount a comeback. Goff is a surprisingly effective passer when getting good protection and this unit gave him a clean pocket on 86.7% of snaps last week. Expect that to continue tonight as Goff will continue to feast in garbage time.
Contrarian Play: WR Randall Cobb, Green Bay Packers ($2,000)
I still chuckle at the thought of the return of Randall Cobb being on the short-list of demands from Aaron Rodgers in the midst of his holdout. I do, however, think there is something to be said about the importance of chemistry between a quarterback and his receiver and I expect that in a typical game (which Week 1 was not), Aaron Rodgers is going to find his spots to get Cobb involved. In a game script that figures to have the Packers up by a healthy margin, not many are going to look at the tertiary passing options for Green Bay and I think a $2,000 Randall Cobb could sneak in a handful of receptions at single-digit ownership..
Salary Relief: WR Amon-Ra St. Brown, Detroit Lions ($2,400)
This one fits perfectly into my narrative for the game as well. In a game where the Lions are likely to flirt with 50+ pass attempts and coming off a week where St. Brown ran routes on 75% of the team's passing plays, I will be overweight on Amon-Ra tonight. Lining up in the slot on 74.5% of plays means St. Brown will primarily see coverage from Chandon Sullivan, the most favorable of the options GB lines up in their defensive secondary. Expect St. Brown to see his target volume increase tonight. If Detroit can be more effective in getting to the red zone, he carries decent scoring upside with the way he's utilized in this offense. Plus, who doesn't love the extra motivation of playing against their big bro?
Monday Night Football Best Bets
Taking a look at the wagering side of this game; before we determine anything else we must ask ourselves what we think of these Green Bay Packers. I tend to look at last week's performance as the exception and not the rule. With that being the case, I am laying the 11.5 points and taking GB tonight. Over the past six seasons, oddsmakers have been fairly sharp when it comes to these larger spreads and NFL teams cover double-digit spreads more than 55% of the time. The total for tonight is sitting at 48.5 and given the somewhat surprising ability of the Lions to make up ground last week, I am confidently on the "over" side of that line.
Picks: Packers -11.5, OVER 48.5 points
Taking a look at the prop market, I am again mainly investing in the "GB Blowout" narrative:
D'Andre Swift: OVER 28.5 Receiving Yard
Coming off a 65-yard performance in a very similar game script, this one feels like a no-brainer. Swift averages nearly 8 yards per reception so this really boils down to whether you think he catches more than 3 passes. I certainly do and I'm confidently on the OVER for this prop. FanDuel is currently carrying the best odds at -110.
T.J. Hockenson: Anytime TD
I'm not the biggest fan of these "to score" props, but I'll break from the norm with this one. I am projecting the Lions to at least have a go at it in this game and there simply isn't a scenario where that doesn't involve a score for Hockenson. +220 odds at FanDuel sort of feels like stealing given that I see this game going over the 48.5 total.
AJ Dillon | UNDER 8.5 Rushing Attempts
I know that the betting public is forecasting a fairly comfortable win for the Packers, but let's not get carried away. AJ Dillon would have to nearly double his career average for carries to get to this number. Plus, it's a bit unlikely that this game gets so far out of reach that Green Bay brings in their backups. Even last week when they did bring in the second-stringers, Dillon only saw 4 carries. I'm expecting Aaron Jones to have a monster day on the ground, as evidenced by my Saturday article.
Week 1 is in the books and it's time to move on to the best bets in Week 2.
If you listened to my article earlier this week, you would have started 1-0 for taking the Giants with the points against Washington in that thriller of a matchup Thursday night. Now, let's dive into Week 2's best NFL bets.
Tennessee Titans/Seattle Seahawks Over 54
The Seahawks' offense was high-flying in the first half last week. Because the Colts never really threatened the outcome of the game, the Seahawks were able to take the air out of the ball and finish the game with an easy win while only scoring seven in the second half. While both the Titans' defense and offense looked atrocious, expect Ryan Tannehill and Derrick Henry to have big bounce-back weeks and make this an epic high-scoring game. This has all the makings for a shootout in which both teams put up 30-plus points.
Cincinnati Bengals +2.5 @ Chicago Bears
Until that Monday night game, the Bengals had the honor of winning the craziest Week 1 game over the Vikings in overtime. The Bears' defense, which is supposed to be their strength, looked awful against the Rams, including one of the most blown coverages you'll ever see on Cooper Kupp's long touchdown. It was simply an awful week for the Bears. I don't think it gets any better until they remove Dalton and promote Justin Fields. If they don't do that prior to game time, the Bengals will run away with this one.
Los Angeles Rams -3.5 @ Indianapolis Colts
Coming out of Week 1 the Rams looked great on both sides of the ball. Matthew Stafford had a great first game, going 20 for 26 with three touchdowns. The Colts... They didn't look that great on either side of the ball. While Carson Wentz's overall numbers didn't look bad, most of the yardage and one of his two TDs came in the fourth quarter as they were chasing from two or more scores back, never actually threatening to win the game. I'm leaning towards the Rams winning this in a blowout and would consider alternate spreads.
Arizona Cardinals -3.5 vs. Minnesota Vikings
Kyler Murray appears to be a man on a mission to avenge last season's bitter ending after absolutely torching the Tennesee Titans in Nashville. The Vikings' defense, who hasn't been as formidable as years past, is going to have their hands full with Kyler. Last week they allowed Joe Burrow to complete nearly 80% of his passes, and Burrow isn't a threat to run nor has a receiver as talented as DeAndre Hopkins. If the Vikings offense doesn't step up and make this a shootout, things could get ugly in Phoenix.
Dallas Cowboys + 3.5 @ Los Angeles Chargers
Dak Prescott looked great in Week 1 and if there were any issues with his shoulder after throwing 58 times, he had 10 days to get healed up again and ready for the Chargers. I can almost guarantee, whenever the Cowboys go to play either Los Angeles team in their stadium, that there will be more Cowboys fans than LA fans. So while they aren't playing in Jerry World, they'll have more fan support. My concern for Justin Herbert and the Chargers is their efficiency in the red zone. His most potent weapons in Keenan Allen and Austin Ekeler become less effective as they get closer to the goal line. That leaves Jared Cook and Mike Williams as your bigger bodies in the red zone, which isn't ideal. The Cowboys have a decent chance to win this one outright, but you can take the points for some cushion.
- Cowboys ML (+160)
- Titans +6.5 (-105)
- Steelers ML (-225)
- Rams -3.5 (-110)
Five Props To Consider
- Calvin Ridley OVER 6.5 receptions (+115)
- Tyrod Taylor OVER 34.5 Pass Attempts (-105)
- Aaron Jones OVER 88.5 combined yards (-115)
- Nick Chubb OVER 17.5 carries (-120)
- James Robinson OVER 9.5 carries (-125)
All five of these props have an excellent chance at hitting. I like the idea of wagering a three-leg prop parlay with the last three props listed (Jones, Chubb and J-Rob). Thanks me on Monday.