Mark McKenzie, Alex Ring - Philadelphia Union, NYCFC - Close up

Of all the unique aspects of the MLS is Back Tournament, the 9 am ET kickoff might top the list.

And while playing without fans in the stands has become normalized with European leagues on television, starting a match that early in the morning is a first for veteran NYCFC players Maxi Moralez and Alex Ring. That will be reality, though, when meeting the Philadelphia Union in their Group A opener July 9 (9 am ET | ESPN, TSN).

“It’s very difficult to play in the morning. I don’t remember ever having to play this early,” Moralez said through a translator in a call with reporters Wednesday afternoon. “You have to wake up early, you have to eat breakfast early, so it’s not ideal to play at that time. We just have to adjust to the times we were given for those three games and try and be as awake as possible for the first game.”

“I don’t remember even in my youth playing at 9 am. I think the earliest was 11,” added Ring. “I don’t know when I have to get up for [pregame] meal, probably at 5 in the morning right? It’s not optimal. You know me, I don’t complain too much. But I do think it’s a compromise we’re making as players, for sure.”

James Sands, the club’s first-ever Homegrown signing, joked he might be better acclimated to the early start time because at 19 years old, he’s “closer to my youth years." He'll also lean on his experience during Concacaf qualifying for the U-17 World Cup a few years ago.

“It definitely affects people differently. For me, I try to limit the amount of routine I have just in case stuff like this does come up," Sands said. "I remember when I was with U-17s in qualifying, we were always preparing for stuff like this because its Concacaf and you never know what happens. I think I’ve been prepared well for something like this.”

To prepare for the 9 am ET start, NYCFC coach Ronny Deila said they've trained earlier than usual and they may look to move a pre-tournament friendly against FC Dallas to the morning.

“It’s the same for both teams and all the other teams as well,” Deila said. “It’s about executing the task in the best way and hopefully better than the others. Then we have an advantage. We can’t do more than that.”

As for expectations, NYCFC have lofty ones. Yes, they’re off to a slow start in league play with no points to show from the first two matches, but the goal is to be playing in the final August 11. Deila said his team is injury-free and has been training consistently since their return from the COVID-19 stoppage.

That said, there's significant importance placed on their breakfast bash against a familiar Philadelphia side.

“It’s a huge game for us,” Sands said. “At this point, we’re kind of looking at Philly as the other top team [in Group A]. In a group of six, it’s all that more important.”