Of the opening Group A matches at the MLS is Back Tournament, Orlando City SC vs. Inter Miami is getting most of the discussion for obvious reasons, chief among them: It's the opening match of the entire tournament. It represents the first official MLS game in fourth months.
Judging by last season's Eastern Conference standings and preseason expectations, however, that's not the best pure soccer matchup of the group. That comes the following morning, when the Philadelphia Union and NYCFC play (Thursday, 9 am ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes in US; TSN in Canada).
NYCFC topped the East in 2019 while the Union finished fourth and then hosted (and won) an Audi MLS Cup Playoff match. Both teams return an overwhelming majority of their core squad and came into 2020 with even bigger hopes.
The Union have been fully focused on their first game, preparing for NYCFC the best they can. Despite NYCFC getting off to a slow start — losses in both MLS matches played as they advanced into the quarterfinals of the Concacaf Champions League — Philly head coach Jim Curtin is impressed with what he's seen.
"NYCFC, for me on paper, are the best team in our conference," Curtin told reporters on a video conference call. "They're very strong in all aspects. We're breaking down film now, they played really good soccer. I know it's three or four months ago now, but they have a very good coach, they're well organized and their talent speaks for themselves."
Curtin specifically points out the quality of Heber, Alexandru Mitrita and Maxi Moralez, the last of whom he calls one of the very best No. 10's in the league, before singling out the "one of the most underrated players" Alex Ring in the midfield. He also gave credit to new head coach Ronny Deila, who took over just ahead of preseason.
"They're a very balanced and dangerous team," Curtin said. "One thing I've noticed, they're even more aggressive on their counter-pressing with the new coach. Tough opponent and we'll have our hands full, but our group doesn't fear anybody and we think we have a good team."
Curtin also added that his team recently played an inter-squad scrimmage and are up to 75 minutes of full match fitness. He's happy with where the group is at, as well as individuals like Jose Andres Martinez, Jack de Vries and Jamiro Monteiro. The squad has arrived in Orlando and all players and staff passed two rounds of COVID-19 testing.
Another unique wrinkle heading into the match against NYCFC is that it's played at 9 a.m., the tournament's first early morning kickoff.
"The 9 am kickoff is going to be new for us," Curtin said. "There's no exact way to do this, we're obviously in close contact with our dieticians, sports science departments about sleep rhythms and when the best time is to have a pregame meal. We think we have a decent plan in place but it'll certainly be new for the players. It'll be unique. ... We'll adapt and adjust. Once that opening whistle blows, our players will be excited to be back on the field."