I didn’t know how much I missed this league until Thursday’s MLS is Back Tournament draw. Watching Charlie Davies crack open those ping pong balls while Soccer Twitter falsely accused him of rigging the thing went a long way toward building my anticipation. Keep MLS weird, I say.
Back in March, every team’s depth chart rolled off my tongue. I had all the storylines down pat. Tactical identities, whether established or a work in progress, were second nature. That feels like a lifetime ago. We’re all going to have to re-learn some things, and what we thought we knew back then has already changed thanks to a pandemic and a never-before-seen format.
I guess what I’m telling you is to take any predictions I make with a grain of salt. I don’t know. You don’t know. Nobody knows. This is what I think right this second, the night of June 11. I reserve the right to change any and all opinions until the first ball is kicked in just under a month's time.
Favorite: Philadelphia Union
Why the Union? For one, continuity. Jim Curtin knows his guys and he’s been building toward something for years. Ronny Deila can have all the Zoom calls he wants, but nothing replaces time on the training field and games. Second, Philly got two expansion teams in their three games. Third, Ilsinho. Brazilians love it in Orlando. Kidding, but not kidding.
Darkhorse: Orlando City
Yes, they’re seeded. No, that doesn’t have anything to do with the soccer they play. I just find it hard to believe that being the “home” team has no value. At the very least, they’ll understand how to deal with the heat and humidity.
All it takes to make a run is for one player to get hot. That could be Luis Nani. It could be Mauricio Pereyra, who we saw very little of in 2019 but has an impressive resume. It could be Dom Dwyer. Oscar Pareja won’t be afraid to be compact and hit on the break, and he’s got a couple new central defenders and an international goalkeeper in Pedro Gallese to hold things down in the back.
Player to Watch: Rodolfo Pizarro (Inter Miami)
Inter GM Paul McDonough told us on Extratime that he hopes to add a third Designated Player, an attacker, but this is Pizarro’s team. Given the money they spent to get him out of Monterrey, it’s on the Mexican international to produce. It won’t be easy in a brand-new team coming off an unprecedented break, though Julian Carranza’s return from injury ought to help alleviate some of the pressure.
Favorite: Seattle Sounders
Darkhorse: San Jose Earthquakes
Feast or famine here.
Famine because San Jose waited longer than any other team to get the green light to train at their own facility, beginning individual training in alternating daily shifts just this Tuesday. Will the Quakes be fit enough to cause problems with Matias Almeyda’s man-marking scheme? They’re going to be weeks behind every other club thanks to COVID-19 restrictions.
Feast because teams are inevitably going to be rusty, and San Jose’s intense style could be difficult to deal with for teams that lack game fitness and match sharpness. Plus, Almeyda is a proven tournament manager – two Copa MX titles and the Concacaf Champions League in 2018 – and will be able to turn over half the team if needed thanks to the new substitution rule.
Player to Watch: Lucas Cavallini
Only FC Cincinnati scored fewer goals last season. El Tanque is supposed to be the answer to the ‘Caps attacking woes. He’s the club’s record transfer. They’re tournament fate likely rides on the Canadian international’s form.
UPDATE (July 6): FC Dallas were withdrawn from the tournament due to the impact of positive COVID-19 tests on the team's ability to train and compete.
Favorite: Toronto FC
Like Group D, the margins here feel very slim. Toronto have the championship pedigree and they have top-tier talent on every line. Jozy Altidore is the best forward in the group. Alejandro Pozuelo is the best attacking midfielder. Nobody can match the versatility and experience the Reds have on the backline (Morrow, Mavinga, Gonzalez, Laryea). They’ve got depth, too, as well as a wildcard in DP winger Pablo Piatti.
Darkhorse: D.C. United
Ben Olsen’s boys aren’t a sexy pick, but I don’t expect them to beat themselves. Bill Hamid is the sort of goalkeeper who can get on a tournament-changing heater. Steven Birnbaum and Frederic Brillant won’t need reps together to be comfortable. Junior Moreno and Felipe are a no-nonsense central midfield pairing. Between Yamil Asad and Edison Flores, there’s some magic in the final third. Where will Julian Gressel play? I’d be tempted to put him on the right and let Ola Kamara attack those juicy crosses.
Player to Watch: Victor Wanyama
I don’t have much to say here, other than that I’ll be watching Wanyama closely. He made a big career move to a new city and a new league in a bid to get back on the field and revitalize his career, then spent a couple months stuck at home. What’s he got? Can he take over games? The Impact need him (and Bojan) to perform. They could finish last in the group, or they could win it. ¯\(ツ)/¯
Favorite: Sporting Kansas City
It came down to Minnesota or SKC. When in doubt, give the edge to the team with more talent, and that’s undoubtedly Sporting, even without Felipe Gutierrez, who had knee surgery this week. One of Gadi Kinda – remember that banger against the Whitecaps? – or Gianluca Busio will take the Chilean’s place in the XI.
Goals are not an issue with Alan Pulido, Johnny Russell and Gerso Fernandes leading the line, with plenty of depth behind them. I don’t think there’s a single question mark in this squad other than who partners Matt Besler in central defense. Peter Vermes can choose one of Roberto Puncec, Winston Reid, Andreu Fontas or Bortund Barath. That’s luxury.
Darkhorse: Colorado Rapids
Tired legs mean fouls. Fouls mean free kicks. Free kicks mean Jack Price on dead balls. Jack Price on dead balls means Kei Kamara is going to get a free header or three. Free headers for Kei mean you’re picking the ball out of the back of your own net.
And that’s just set pieces. The Rapids, post-Anthony Hudson, proved they were much more than that in 2019. Quietly, the Rapids have serious attacking depth in Kamara, Diego Rubio, Andre Shinyashiki, Nicolas Benezet, Younes Namli and Jonathan Lewis. Outside of Price, their back six is young – Keegan Rosenberry is the old head at 26 – but doesn’t lack experience. They’ve got something to prove, and this tournament might be their coming-out party.
Player to Watch: Giuseppe Rossi
Please, oh please, let Rossi win the starting job. His quality is not in doubt. The whole league will be watching to see how the Jersey-born Italian international fares in his first MLS season after years flirting with a return home.
Favorite: Atlanta United
They’re the favorites until they’re not.
Darkhorse: Columbus Crew
Columbus was a sleeper pick to win the whole thing when there wasn’t a pandemic. That doesn’t change now. Show we a weak spot in that starting XI. You can’t. They’ve got veteran leadership in the back (Jonathan Mensah, Harrison Afful, Eloy Room), explosive young legs (Milton Valenzuela, Luis Diaz), proven game-changers (Darlington Nagbe, Pedro Santos and Gyasi Zardes) and a plus-plus No. 10 in his prime in Lucas Zelarayan. Massive.
Player to Watch: Jurgen Locadia
How many teams in MLS have an eight-figure striker in their squad? FC Cincinnati might be the most fascinating team in this entire competition. It could be total football or a total trainwreck. They’ve got a whole lot more talent than last year … but they made another dramatic coaching change before the season even began. Locadia? Jaap Stam? Complete chaos? Sign me up.
Shout out to my guy Mark Rojas of the 3252 for picking ball W4. We needed El Trafico in this tournament. Had to have it. Nothing to see here! I know we’ve been soccer starved for three months, but I don’t need to remind you how good LAFC are, right? The point record they set? What they did to Leon in CCL? Add Andy Najar, Bradley Wright-Phillips and a handful of Conmebol U-20 Championship standouts to that 2019 team and what do you get? The tournament favorites.
Darkhorse: Portland Timbers
When I talk about the Timbers, I usually steal Chris Rifer’s words. You’ve got the floor, Chris.
Look at that roster and tell me the Timbers don’t have the potential to win this whole thing.
Player to Watch – Carlos Vela
Vela's the best player in MLS, by a mile. Will he go to Orlando, given his wife is pregnant with their second child? I hope so, selfishly, but I don’t know so. If he does, LAFC are the clear favorites to win the whole thing. If he doesn’t, the math in Group F is going to change. There’s a month to figure it out.
UPDATE: Carlos Vela and LAFC announced the reigning MVP will miss the tournament due to his family situation. His wife is pregnant with the couple's second child.