MLS Is Back Tournament: Groups E & F Preview
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.