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.
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.
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.