By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Jun 12, 2020) US Soccer Players – Suspend your incredulity. MLS is back. And it’s going to be weird. The long-rumored Orlando tournament became official on Tuesday when MLS announced a July 8 start date at the Wide World of Sports complex in Florida for what it’s calling The MLS Is Back Tournament. There’s no conceit here. There’s not even a sponsor. MLS is back, full stop. It says so in the name.
All 26 teams will participate, with MLS holding 54 games over 34 days to eventually crown a champion of sorts. Because MLS decided to schedule games in morning and nighttime windows to avoid the worst of the Florida heat, they split the six groups along conference lines with Nashville switching to the Eastern Conference.
To give the tournament some competitive juice, MLS established a $1.1 million pool of prize money, secured a Concacaf Champions League berth for the winner, and declared that group stage matches will count in the league standings. If, or when, MLS returns to in-market games post-tourney, those games will help make up for the lost portion of the schedule.
Thursday’s “draw” was a one of a kind, achingly “MLS” event. Held over video conferencing, former MLS and USMNT forward Charlie Davies shepherding club representatives for the six seeded teams through the process. Rather than draw group positions and then club names ala the World Cup or Champions League draws, the men present via remote connection picked numbers corresponding to the balls in front of Davies.
Though nothing is out of the realm of mathematical possibility in a random draw, the results led to plenty of speculation. Before the draw even began, MLS announced that Inter Miami would be in Group A, the six-team group with Orlando as the top seed as host. Further, the two Florida teams will kick off the tournament against one another on July 8. It’s certainly worth wondering why MLS just didn’t go ahead and set the entire field.
Regardless, the draw certainly delivered some advantageous matchups for a league constantly pushing its rivalries. Toronto, the seeded team in Group C, was drawn with Montreal. The two Ohio teams will face off in Group E. LAFC’s first choice landed them a clash with the LA Galaxy. The game sometimes known as “El Trafico” will go down on a training field with regular-season points and a chance to make the knockout rounds of the tournament on the line.
If MLS was slotting the teams where it wanted them to amplify the intrigue, it was odd to see Seattle and Portland land in different Western Conference groups. Instead, Seattle and Vancouver will play one of the lesser-loved Cascadia derbies while Portland plays LAFC, the Galaxy, and the Houston Dynamo.
MLS adherents will remember that LAFC and Portland have a bit of recent history. The eventual Supporters’ Shield winners took down the Timbers at Providence Park last season only to lose to them in a US Open Cup quarterfinal in Los Angeles a month later.
Any gnashing of teeth over the sanctity of the draw is probably misplaced. These are strange times. This is a strange tournament. The draw was probably fair. Or as fair as a draw for a wacky World Cup-style tournament to be played on training fields in a resort setting can be.
The winner of the 2020 MLS Is Back Tournament will, we hope, be the only winner of the MLS Is Back Tournament. MLS desperately wants to get back to the soccer stadiums it worked so hard to have built around the country. It desperately needs the ticket revenue that comes from playing in front of fans. This is a one-off.
In a roundabout way, that makes the tournament prestigious. Win it, and you’ll be the most unique champion in league history. The prize money and Champions League spot are nice, but competition thrives on bragging rights. What could be better than lording a title won in the first games back from a pandemic in less-than-ideal conditions? Probably not worth answering that, but we press on.
The structure of the tournament means only six of the 26 teams will exit in the group stage, leaving the door open for some unfancied teams to make a run. Clubs that missed the playoffs in 2019 faced a long road to the postseason with a normal schedule. With the tournament format in Florida and the neutral site for games, there’s an opportunity to make waves without the need to play consistently good soccer over long stretches.
Could we see a cinderella run in Orlando? The Rapids were 2-0-0 under Robin Fraser when the league shut down. They showed a knack for winning games late, a handy skill in a short tournament. The Impact also owned a spotless record through the first two games with Thierry Henry at the helm and looked primed to surprise.
If we’re being honest, two games leading into a nearly fourth-month gap before the tournament doesn’t make for informed predictions. No one knows how close to their previous levels any of the teams gathering in Orlando will be when the games start. As of this moment, we don’t even know which players will be in Orlando. Per the league’s agreement with the MLS Players Association, some players will get waivers to skip the tournament because of family or medical issues. Several high profile MLS players may not head to Florida.
Conventional wisdom tells us that FC Cincinnati will struggle, especially with a brand new head coach at the helm. Nashville is in a similar situation based on early returns. Maybe Chicago or San Jose uses this as a building block.
It’s worth accounting for the weirdness. Tournaments create the environment for shock runs by teams no one thought could compete with their more talented competition. The margin for error in the group stage is significant, and knockout soccer flattens the field. Anything can happen in 90 minutes. Maybe there’s a Greece-at-Euro 2004 story brewing as we speak.
Embrace the strangeness of this thing because there’s hardly another choice. There are some actual prizes on the line, but 2020 is well past whatever line exists between the typical and the extraordinary. Extraordinary times call for a different set of expectations.
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