Say this for Major League Soccer’s return-to-play tournament: It hasn’t been boring. Before it started, two teams had to be withdrawn due to a rash of positive COVID-19 tests. Rather than the normal pre-tournament pomp and circumstance, the league opened with a ceremony honoring the Black Lives Matter movement. Once it kicked off, there has been no shortage of breakout performances.
The MLS is Back Tournament now begins the knockout phase with the Round of 16 on Saturday before wrapping up on Aug. 11 and potentially going into some sort of regular-season after that.
Here’s everything you need to know to be prepared for the rest of the tournament:
The tournament started with six four-team groups that played three matches apiece. The top two teams in each group were guaranteed to advance, along with the top four third-place finishers.
While the results weren’t exactly chalk, most of the teams you’d expect to advance did … with a few notable exceptions.
The biggest was certainly perennial power Atlanta United, who managed to lose all three matches they played and didn’t even score a goal. Perhaps predictably, that cost manager Frank de Boer his job (yes, THAT Frank de Boer).
Also notable among that group were 2019 playoff teams New York Red Bulls, D.C. United and LA Galaxy, who replaced global superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic with Mexican superstar Javier Hernandez over the offseason.
It wasn’t nearly as surprising that expansion Inter Miami were bounced from the tournament, but it was notable that they became the first MLS team to lose their first five matches despite spending quite a lot of money to fill out their inaugural roster and hiring Liga MX veteran Diego Alonso as their coach.
The biggest revelation of the group stage was probably the Columbus Crew, who didn’t even make the playoffs last year. The Crew were the only team to win all three of their matches as well as the only one not to allow a goal. They opened their tournament with a 4-0 win over FC Cincinnati in the “Hell is Real” rivalry and have generally played some of the most inspiring soccer of the tournament.
After that loss, just about everyone wrote off Cincinnati’s chances, especially since they had hired Jaap Stam just a couple weeks prior to the tournament. It would be a massive stretch to call Stam’s team “inspiring” but they did manage to bounce back with a couple of shutout wins over Atlanta (1-0) and the Red Bulls (2-0).
The other big surprise was Orlando City, who have never made the playoffs but managed to go undefeated and finish atop their group. Chris Mueller’s three goals have led the way and even have earned him some mentions as a potential United States national team player.
The Portland Timbers finished atop the so-called “Group of Death”, standing toe-to-toe with Los Angeles FC in the group-stage finale. In addition to being one of the leaders of the league’s Black Lives Matter Movement, Jeremy Ebobisse has also been one of the tournament’s top players.
The San Jose Earthquakes were only able to train together as a team for less than two weeks before the tournament started and play a man-marking system that lends itself to miscommunications at the best of times. They still managed to win their group despite doing things like this:
That’s what a lot of people thought and the betting odds had them heavily favored. Missing reigning MVP Carlos Vela, who decided to stay home with his pregnant wife, definitely hurt but his presence doesn’t seem to have been missed too badly as they were easily the highest scoring team in the group stage with 11 goals.
Diego Rossi has been almost unstoppable — including a five-goal performance in El Trafico — and fellow Uruguayan Brian Rodriguez has been one of the tournament’s breakout stars. They also bring someone like Mohamed El-Munir off the bench, a player capable of this:
Where they’ve struggled is defensively. They’ve given up the first goal in all three of their games and only one team allowed more than their seven goals. There’s something admirable about Bob Bradley’s attack-first mentality, but it’s unclear if his midfield and defense are going to be able to return to the level that made them so good last year.
They’ll face the reigning MLS Cup champion Seattle Sounders, the team that knocked them out of the playoffs last year, in the Round of 16. That match is on Monday.
Like just about all the teams, it was hard to know what to expect from the Sounders. They opened with a 0-0 draw against the Earthquakes and looked pretty flat against the Chicago Fire in a 2-1 loss. But they came out flying in their group-stage finale, blitzing the Vancouver Whitecaps 3-0 behind a dominant performance from Jordan Morris. The tournament has so far been a microcosm of many of their seasons under Brian Schmetzer: slow start, sluggish middle and strong finish. If they follow the script, they’ll put together a strong run in the knockout stages.
No one has looked particularly consistent, which is probably to be expected given the long layoff and short run-up to games, and there have been plenty of upsets along the way. If you’re looking for a team who looks capable of getting hot and making a surge, the Philadelphia Union are a pretty good bet. Jim Curtin has quietly transformed them from an afterthought into one of the more attractive teams in the league despite a roster virtually devoid of recognizable names.
Another team to pay attention to is Toronto FC. They have plenty of “names” but their most impressive player in the group stage was little-known Ayo Akinola. The Detroit-born TFC Academy product scored five goals in three games, including a hat trick against the Montreal Impact.
Luckily, the 9 a.m. kickoffs are now a thing of the past. The games were designed as a way to keep games from being played at the same time, while avoiding the hottest part of the day. But temperatures still routinely crept into the high 80s and 90s and were accompanied by intense humidity. Players hated them and they were apparently a ratings bomb, to boot.
Going forward, all games will kick off in the evening with the earliest kickoff at 7:30 p.m. and the latest at 11 p.m.
Aside from FC Dallas and Nashville SC being withdrawn, there haven’t been too many notable incidents. A handful of players from other teams have tested positive, but the league has now gone 12 straight days without any others. That suggests the positive tests were probably all limited to players who contracted coronavirus before entering the Disney World bubble. Although there were some notable complaints early on, players and coaches seem to feel like things are relatively safe there now.