The groups have been drawn for the MLS is Back Tournament, starting July 8 in Orlando. Matchups are forming, MLS is back.
Players, coaches and general managers throughout the league have been giving their thoughts on the six groups, highlighted by an opening game clash between Florida foes Orlando City SC and Inter Miami CF as well as an El Trafico meeting between LAFC and LA Galaxy, a Candian Classique between the Montreal Impact and Toronto FC and Hell is Real derby with FC Cincinnati vs. Columbus Crew. You can get the full details on the group draw here.
As reactions emerge, here are some key takeaways from Thursday's group draw, setting the stage for 56 games over 26 matchdays at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney World Resort in Florida.
After being drawn alongside old foes the New York Red Bulls, and Hell is Real rivals the Columbus Crew and FC Cincinnati, Atlanta Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra said is primary emotion was excitement and getting back to the field after the long hiatus.
"We’re just excited to get back to playing soccer," he said. "We knew we were going to be facing all Eastern Conference teams in the tournament. Obviously, we’ve had some good games against the Red Bulls lately. And Columbus rebuilt and have been really strong. And we’ve played Cincinnati already this year. We’re excited to play, excited to be back out on the field and looking forward to a good month down in Florida."
Of several rivalries that emerged from the MLS is Back Tournament draw, the impending Group E matchup between Cincy and Columbus has plenty of intrigue. Center back Tom Pettersson is yet to experience a Hell is Real Derby, but he already feels anticipation.
"I’ve heard that it’s a very special game, especially for the fans and the city," Pettersson said, "so I think it’s fun to face them straight away in this tournament. So, I’m looking forward to it."
As for Designated Player forward Yuya Kubo, he added that "it’s always good to play a derby game."
There are a few groups in the MLS is Back Tournament who can lay claim to being the group of death, but perhaps the strongest resume is that of Group D.
Between the Colorado Rapids, Sporting Kansas City and Minnesota United, the group have three of the four teams in the league to start 2020 a perfect 2-0-0. The other is Real Salt Lake, who finished third in the West in 2019.
“We’re going to embrace it, I’d say it’s arguably the toughest in the tournament,” Rapids EVP and GM Padraig Smith said. “But it’s going to make for some really compelling games.”
“Our group is probably as challenging as any in the tournament, but to win, you’ve got to beat great teams,” head coach Robin Fraser added. “So be it.”
US national team defender and Homegrown Player signing Reggie Cannon could barely contain his enthusiasum for FC Dallas' draw, which will give his side a crack at revenge for their dramatic playoff exit at the hands of eventual 2019 MLS Cup winners, the Seattle Sounders.
On the road, Dallas responded from deficits of 2-0 and 3-2 to force extra time before Seattle's Jordan Morris completed a hat trick with a 113th-minute winner in a 4-3 Sounders win. While Seattle went on to lift their second MLS Cup, a young Dallas squad was brought closer by the defeat.
"As soon as I saw we were in Seattle’s group, man, I started smiling," Cannon told the team website on Friday. "It is just going to be a great opportunity to get some revenge because that game hurt, and it’s something I’ll never forget. It was a game I grew (from). It was a game the whole team grew (from). And everyone was together in that game. It felt like a family, it felt like a brotherhood."
Inter Miami CF
Inter Miami Sporting Director Paul McDonough joined Extratime after the draw and said that being in the only group of six teams would present a challenge.
“I think we’re happy to be back playing,” he said. “But the group of six is definitely something that I don’t think we’ve even wrapped our heads around. I came into [head coach] Diego [Alonso] this morning after training, I said look w'ere going to open up, we’re going to play Orlando to start and he said ‘OK.’ And then I said but we’re in the group of six, he said ‘No Ok.’
“I think it’s a little bit harder to get out of a group of six but we’re just happy to be playing. A lot of work has gone into it. Philly we saw in preseason, they’re very good. They’ve got a really good system, they’re tough. Chicago, they’re kind of rebuilding so we’re not really sure what’s going to happen there/ but really for us right now we just have to focus on ourselves.”
There’s already plenty on the line for every team with the regular season points and Concacaf Champions League berth that are at stake, but Impact midfielder Samuel Piette said that the clash with TFC will add even more luster from the players’ perspective.
“I feel like it was written in the sky that we needed to be together in the same group,” Piette said. “I think it’s good, obviously playing games with no fans under a new format will be much different than we’ve experienced before so maybe [playing Toronto] is motivation.
“To have Toronto, to have the chance to play against them, will obviously raise that motivation bar for us.”
Along with Inter Miami, Nashville arguably have a tougher task than most going into the tournament, as an expansion side that was still trying to find its footing before the league’s hiatus, and will now have to rebuild the chemistry they'd established with one another during preseason.
Nashville dropped each of its first two games of their debut season against Atlanta United and the Portland Timbers, but captain Dax McCarty said there are plenty of positives that he’s taken away from those matches that can be applied looking ahead to Orlando, particularly defensively. If Nashville can maintain that defensive solidity and iron out their attack, McCarty said his side should be going into the tournament with high expectations.
“As far as I’m concerned, I want to win this tournament,” McCarty said. “There’s so much incentive to go out every single game and try to play open, exciting, attacking soccer to try and win games and score goals. That’s what we’re going to try to do.”
New York City FC
NYCFC started the MLS season without scoring a goal and ending up with two losses. This was at least partly due to the fact that Ronny Deila’s put most of their focus on the Concacaf Champions League, where they defeated San Carlos in the Round of 16 and had just finished their Leg 1 match against Tigres UANL before play was halted.
“I’m happy with the grouping. Exciting games. It’s tough games with whoever we meet in MLS, it’s a very competitive league,” sai Deila. “All these teams are new for me so I’m looking forward to study and make our team ready to play them and hopefully beat them in Orlando.”
One area where NYCFC seemingly have an edge is the depth of their roster, as they brought almost the full squad back after finishing first in the Eastern Conference in 2020.
“I think so,” Deila said when asked if NYCFC’s depth is an advantage in the tournament. “I think we have good depth in our squad. We have a very, very tough competition in different positions and this is something we can use to our advantage.”
New York Red Bulls
After a number of classic, heated matches between the New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United over the last few years, the Eastern Conference rivals are ready to do battle again at the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando in Group E.
Despite being away from their home stadiums and with no fans in attendance, Red Bulls head coach Chris Armas isn’t worried about the game lacking its trademark intensity.
“The games are different without fans… but I don’t think we could meet Atlanta at a park with no one watching and it wouldn’t be heated,” Armas said. “We’re not scared, we love the challenge every single time. That’s one of the reasons why we’ve done well, we went after them in preseason too. There’ll be a lot going on in that game, it’ll be great.”
Orlando City SC
As the "home" team for the tournament, Orlando City was placed as the seeded team in Group A, the only group to feature six teams. As well as Inter Miami, Orlando will face off with NYCFC, Philadelphia Union, Chicago Fire and Nashville SC.
"Feels good to be home," said Orlando's EVP of Soccer Luiz Muzzi, who took part in Thursday's draw. "I don’t think there’s a whole lot of advantage there. We’re playing against great teams and they’re all prepared. We’d like to have fans and we know our fans are following us. But everybody has a strong team. We’re just glad to be back and looking forward to starting."
Real Salt Lake
RSL head coach Freddy Juarez took part in Thursday's draw and later reacted to his team being drawn alongside Sporting Kansas City, the Colorado Rapids and Minnesota United.
"First of all, it’s a tough group," he said. "Rivalries with Colorado and with Sporting. And Minnesota is a very, very good group,” Juarez said. “A lot of respect there. We’re a competitive group, a tight-knit group and improving every year the last four years. We know what we have, we know what we are and we have a chip on our shoulder that we want to go out and compete against anyone in MLS. That’s the mindset of the whole group.”
Vice President of Soccer and Sporting Director Chris Henderson also took part in the draw, and saw the Sounders land in Group B, alongside FC Dallas, Cascadia rivals the Vancouver Whitecaps and the San Jose Earthquakes.
"It’s a tough group," he said. "Some rivalry games for sure and some history between the clubs. We’re looking forward to get starting again. November and MLS Cup seems like a long time ago. We’re looking forward to getting to the warm weather, adjusting and excited to be playing again."
Sporting Kansas City
Sporting KC head coach Peter Vermes spoke to reporters via conference call after his team was drawn into a group with Real Salt Lake, Colorado and Minnesota. It figures to be one of the more evenly-matched groups in the tournament, and though Vermes didn't get into specifics about his team's initial opponents, noting that they still figure to play every MLS team this season, he did like the look of a lot of the matchups across the tournament.
"In regards to group itself and all the groups, I think it really wouldn't have mattered who we got in my opinion, and I say that because we're going to have to play everybody anyway at some point coming out of this as well," he said. "So however we start, if you want to get to the final you're going to have to play all the teams anyway. I thought the groups wound up pretty good because there are some good rivalries and a lot of them will be good for television."
Vermes also noted that now having games and specific opponents to look forward to would add a much-needed element to his team's training sessions and preparations for return to play.
"Having a date — that's the way that we work in our business — everything is centered around dates and times and when our next opponent is and where we're traveling to. So you're always kind of reverse engineering from that and now having a date a team to play, all that, is going to help immensely in what we're trying to get prepared for. Athletes are almost always goal-oriented, so then now having something is going to make it that much different just in training and how we prepare going forward."
In one of the highlights of the draw, Toronto FC were drawn alongside Canadian Classique rivals Montreal Impact, as well as the New England Revolution and D.C. United.
"It’s Eastern Conference teams," Toronto General Manager Ali Curtis said. "Those are battles. We ‘ve got some good teams, good competition. Montreal of course is a rival. But DC and New England are strong teams. You’re looking at some playoff teams and Montreal won the Canadian Championship. There’s a lot at stake and we’re going to do the best we can to get results."
One of the prominent rivalries to highlight the group stage will be the Vancouver Whitecaps vs. the Seattle Sounders in Group B. Vancouver aren't fretting about drawing the reigning MLS Cup champions, in fact, head coach Marc Dos Santos prefers it this way.
“We were very glad that we ended up in a group that’s incredibly balanced, any of the groups can qualify,” Dos Santos said. “It’s good for our fans that we ended up in a group with Seattle or Portland, we wanted that.”
“Whoever is that first game we have to be ready,” he added. “For our fans, I hope our first game is against Seattle.”