We’ll get to the soccer, but it’d be disingenuous not to start with the biggest and most important question concerning preparations for MLS is Back: How will COVID-19 affect the tournament?
The virus has already forced a major change with FC Dallas being withdrawn from the tournament on July 6 due to the impact of the positive test results on their ability to train and compete. The league is providing regular test updates and the hope is that other teams don't find themselves in a similar position to FC Dallas. The Texas club had 10 players a technical staff member test positive.
We are all living through this together. Concern is understandable and logical. First, for the health and safety of everyone involved. Second for the tournament itself. The good news is that the vast majority of players, coaches, referees, club staff, league staff and other individuals in Orlando are healthy. According to the latest numbers, of the 1,191 people who were tested for COVID-19 on July 3 and 4, only two tested positive. That’s a positive rate of just over 0.1 percent.
I chatted with MLS Chief Medical Officer Margot Putukian on Extratime a couple of weeks ago to better understand this exact scenario. She told me the protocols and planning were based around a “when, not if” approach to positive tests. The challenge was to create an environment that could quickly identify those infected, treat them safely and effectively and minimize exposure for everyone else. We’re watching those protocols in action, in real time. Stay tuned to MLSsoccer.com for testing updates every other day.
Now, on to my big questions – not necessarily the biggest, just the three that interest me most (and that I haven’t yet written about) – on the field in Orlando. As always, please help me kill time by tweeting your thoughts at @andrew_wiebe.
The page turned in Chicago, so who are the Fire?
Robert Beric celebrates scoring against the Seattle Sounders on March 1, 2020. | USA Today Sports Images
For the last two weeks, Fire supporters have been arguing about the club’s starting XI in my Twitter mentions. The consensus is basically that, with all the moves made in the offseason, nobody really knows how Raphael Wicky is going line his team up. What we do know is that the numbers game means some starting-caliber talent will start on the bench. That’s a good sign, I suppose.
The club needed a mulligan, on the field and off. In the offseason, they got one. Off the field, we’re going to have to wait to see about their return to Soldier Field. On the field, it’s time to pick a club, square up and see how many players sporting director Georg Heitz and technical director Sebastian Pelzer connected on in the offseason.
Is Robert Beric an above-average MLS No. 9? Will 20-year-old Argentine winger Ignacio Aliseda be worth the Designated Player tag? Are new No. 10 Luka Stojanović and right back Boris Sekulic scouting steals … or potential salary cap burdens keeping younger talent off the field? Will Alvaro Medran and Gaston Gimenez’s pedigrees in Spain and Argentina translate to MLS? Where will Homegrown Mauricio Pineda play, if at all?
Throw the first two games of the season out the window. We didn’t get to see the whole group together. It’s time to find out who exactly the Fire want to be and if they made the right decisions to take themselves there.
Can Cristian Pavon drag the Galaxy to the Knockout Rounds?
Sheesh is right.
Jonathan dos Santos might just be the Galaxy’s best and most important player, but he won’t be in Orlando thanks to a balky groin. Chicharito’s productivity might just be the most important driver for the club on and off the field, but he needs service and support to be effective. I’ve got a ton of questions about the Galaxy’s ability to keep the ball out of their own net, but I have zero questions about the game-breaking ability of Cristian Pavon.
The dude is a baller, and if he’s doing things like that clip above or what he did at Houston to open the year – again, sheesh! – then the Galaxy have a chance to win another El Trafico, especially with Carlos Vela staying home, and make the rest of MLS roll their eyes. The group stage isn’t about sustained, replicable success. It’s about players doing things others can’t and tipping the scales over 90 minutes. Not many, if any, can do what Pavon can do.
Are we sleeping on the Red Bulls?
Brian White and Daniel Royer celebrate a goal against FC Cincinnati on March 1, 2020. | USA Today Sports Images
From the jump, I basically dismissed New York’s chances in Group E. The Crew feel like everyone’s darling, Atlanta United are still stacked without Josef Martinez and FC Cincinnati are a beautiful train wreck that I can’t tear my eyes away from. The more I think about it, the dumber writing off the Red Bulls seems.
No, they aren’t a team that’s going to go out and drop millions on proven products and stack the roster the way they did back in the Thierry Henry days (and to a lesser, more MLS-centric degree during the subsequent Dax McCarty and Sasha Kljestan era), but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the talent to make a run/heap disappointment on Atlanta United, Columbus and Cincinnati.
Aaron Long is arguably the best center back in the league, and he’s got Tim Parker by his side. They’ll miss Kemar Lawrence, but Kyle Duncan might just be the next coming. Cristian Casseres is just getting started and has the David Gass seal of approval. Danny Royer is consistently effective, if not always spectacular. Kaku has double-digit goals and assists potential (key word: potential). Between Brian White, Tom Barlow and Mathias Jorgensen, someone is going to be making hard, near-post runs.
More importantly, the red side of New York knows exactly what they are, what they’re not and what they’re capable of, collectively. They may not all-out press 24/7 under Chris Armas, but nobody is going to have any questions about what they’re expected to do once they cross the white lines in Orlando. And maybe a targeted press against tired legs and slow brains is exactly the sort of competitive advantage that makes the difference in a tournament defined by brief preparation and potential rustiness?
I didn’t pick New York to get through Group E – the Atlanta United and Columbus siren songs were too strong – but I’m ready to be proven wrong. For the record, I feel the exact same way about Real Salt Lake.