Image courtesy of mlssoccer.com
By Garrett Farrell
On July 8, the MLS is Back Tournament kicked off, and became the first major sporting event to be held in the United States since mid-March when concerns over COVID-19 caused all major sports leagues to put a hold on their activities. The tournament is being held in ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, Florida.
Out of the 26 MLS teams, only 24 are participating in the tournament; FC Dallas and Nashville SC both withdrew from the tournament after several of their players tested positive for COVID-19.
The tournament is played in a World Cup-style: a stage of six groups where the top two teams automatically advance to the next round. In addition to these twelve teams, the four best third-place teams also advance to the next round. Following the group stage, there is a standard knockout tournament. So far, only four teams have secured a spot in the knockout tournament: Orlando City SC and the Philadelphia Union, both from Group A, Columbus Crew SC from Group E, and the Portland Timbers from group F.
The tournament has produced three clear tiers of contenders: the teams that have won every match that they have played so far and are clear contenders for a tournament victory, the teams that have the skills to advance to the knockout stage and become dark horse contenders, and the teams that have no shot at advancing. The middle tier is by far the largest and arguably the most interesting of the three tiers.
One of the teams that stands out from this tier is D.C. United; this team has yet to win one of their matches, and is still within striking distance of the top spot in their group (C). D.C. has played both of its matches to draws. The team’s first match was a 2-2 tie against Toronto FC where they failed to score until the 84th minute and scored the tying goal in the last minute of stop time. D.C United’s second match was a 1-1 tie against the New England Revolution.
There are only two matches left to be played in Group C; Toronto vs. New England and Montreal vs. D.C. United clinches a spot in the knockout round with a win as long as Toronto vs. New England does not end in a draw. If the match does end in a draw, D.C. needs to win by more than one point to secure a spot in the knockout round.
Another team that is interesting to look at is Los Angeles FC (F). The team’s first match was a 3-3 tie against the Houston Dynamo, but its second match was a 6-2 dismantling of its city rivals the Los Angeles Galaxy. The team is almost certain to advance, since it would need to lose to the Portland Timbers (who are undefeated and currently lead the group) and the Dynamo would need to have a similar performance to LAFC against the Galaxy to overcome the goal-differential tie-breaker.
However, what is interesting about LAFC is whether or not its defense is built for a run at the championship. There is a major difference in the way the team performed against the Dynamo and the way it performed against the Galaxy. The defense needs to play at a high level consistently for LAFC to have a shot at winning the tournament.
So far the teams that are in the top two spots in their groups are: Orlando City SC (A), The Philadelphia Union (A), The San Jose Earthquakes (B), The Chicago Fire (B), Toronto FC (C), The New England Revolution (C), Real Salt Lake (D), Minnesota United FC (D), Columbus Crew SC (E), The New York Red Bulls (E), The Portland Timbers (F), and Los Angeles FC (F). The top four third place teams are: Sporting Kansas City (D), FC Cincinnati (E), D.C. United (C), and the Houston Dynamo (F).