MLS is slated to return July 8 with the MLS is Back Tournament, and players and coaches throughout the league are understandably excited by competitive games being on the horizon.
As reactions emerge, here are some key takeaways with news that all 26 teams will soon descend on ESPN Wide World of Sports at Disney World Resort in Florida.
Brad Guzan wants to win every match he plays — from an 11-v-11 scrimmage during Atlanta United training to MLS Cup. But when the details emerged about the winner of the MLS is Back Tournament claiming a Concacaf Champions League berth, it served as added incentive.
It certainly creates that ambition to obviously win the tournament. We all understand what Champions League means and what its all about and as a club that’s certainly a goal of ours,” Guzan said in a conference call with reporters Wednesday. “It gives those knockout games that much more meaning.”
Jake Mulraney had some initial reservations about being away from his family for up to five weeks. That became a bit easier when his girlfriend and daughter returned to Ireland a few weeks ago.
Now the Dublin native is all in — once one more important detail gets ironed out.
“The only hurdle I have is getting someone to look after the dog,” the wingback said. “But once we get that sorted, I should be good to go to be honest with you.”
After training since mid-March in the hope that the 2020 season would resume at some point in the near or distant future, having a target date to be ready for and tangible matches to be played is a huge lift for FC Cincinnati.
“There’s been a lot of uncertainty to when soccer will be back,” said goalkeeper Spencer Richey. “One thing that’s cool about this, for a lot of guys, it’s nice to have this tournament to look forward to.”
Columbus Crew SC
While the MLS is Back Tournament is a win for fans of the league across the country, getting to see their favorite stars back in action for what will be the first time in four months come July 8, it's also a huge boost for the players.
“Just the fact of playing soccer is important," said club president Tim Bezbatchenko. "We have competitors, warriors. They compete every day in training and prepare their lives to compete and win on Saturday. To have this tournament set up is fantastic, not just for the club and fans, but for the players.”
As FC Dallas coach Luchi Gonzalez looked ahead to Thursday's draw, he knows that some clubs' pathway toward the tournament championship will be considered more difficult than others' by the general public. He's not about to let that mentality slip into his team, however.
"I don’t want us to be victims to this format in any way," Gonzalez said in a conference call. "I want us to be warriors, to be positive, to find solutions."
Later, he added: "I respect all teams. And the best way we can respect all teams, is to bring it and beat the team that is in front of us."
Houston head coach Tab Ramos dealt with a lot of injuries in the Dynamo’s first two games of the season, including Alberth Elis — who missed both matches, and indicated during a Wednesday conference call that his team’s health should be in a much better spot when the tournament starts next month.
“It looks like [Kiki Struna] will be doing some of the exercises with us tomorrow. So he’s very close to being 100% with us,” said Ramos. “Jose [Bizama] is likely 1-2 weeks away, but it’s likely that we go into the season — obviously we don’t know what’s going to happen in the next four weeks — but hopefully we’ll go into the season with a healthy Jose Bizama, a healthy Darwin Quintero and a healthy Alberth Elis. Also Victor Cabrera. That will be four guys we could potentially start with in the new season that we didn’t have at the beginning.”
Ramos has plenty of experience coaching in tournaments, harkening back to his time as the US U-20’s coach, and feels that could be an advantage for his squad.
“It’s sort of the type of tournament I’m used to more than anything. Hopefully it helps a lot. I know how to manage these kind of tournaments. I’m hoping we have a little bit of an advantage.”
LAFC midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye offered appreciation to the club's supporters, since they’ll have to tune in from afar. All 54 tournament matches will be played in standalone windows and televised across MLS partner networks.
“We’re all in this together and we know that you guys are going to watch from home at the beginning,” Kaye said. “But we still have you guys in our hearts and minds, and we’ll never forget what you guys have been able to do up to this point, and we just keep looking forward to the future when you guys can come back into our stadium. So, stick with us and we’re still with you guys.”
The entire format will be unlike anything ever seen before in MLS, and LA Galaxy goalkeeper David Bingham knows it'll take some adjusting to. One hallmark is an intensive safety and testing protocol to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Orlando’s definitely something new to us as players, and it’s definitely new to the league as a whole," Bingham said. "I think the safety measures make the tournament very detail-oriented, and the game times are at different times and we’re getting tested so many times a week. So, it’s going to be an interesting process, but at the end of the day we get to play games, and that’s what we want to do. We can’t wait to get out there."
Inter Miami CF
It's been a gradual progression from at-home workouts to full-team trainings, and soon games will enter the equation. Inter Miami midfielder Lee Nguyen anxiously awaits when the patience officially pays off.
"This is what we live for," Nguyen said. "It’s great training every day and what not, but we want to get out there and compete, play games and be able to compete for titles. This is a way for us to get out there and start doing that."
The expansion team, which has played just two games in their existence thus far, is coming into the tournament with tempered expectations but the goal to win.
“What I hope for out of the team (in Orlando) is progress,” sporting director Paul McDonough said. “Everyone has to have a goal of being competitive and to win. But I’m realistic in that we’re an expansion team just starting out, so I want progress. If we continue to move forward in a positive direction as we add players to the squad, we’ll be competitive in the league. It’s a very unique tournament, anything can happen.”
The Loons were one of the top stories of the early season with road victories over the Portland Timbers and the San Jose Earthquakes. The eight goals scored in those wins is also the best in the league.
“We had a nice start — two wins, both on the road,” he said. “We had some good momentum going into the third game. Obviously the team wants to pick up where we left [off], we have a bunch of hard-working players, guys who are ready to compete and we’re going to give it our all.”
On top of regular season points at stake over the tournament's three group stage games, there is continental incentive for all 26 clubs to be the last one standing in Orlando. The winner of the MLS is Back Tournament will receive a berth in the 2021 Concacaf Champions League, something Nashville SC GM Mike Jacobs sees as a big opportunity for the expansion club.
“With the carrot of a CCL place in front of all of us, there’s never been a route like this available," Jacobs said. "Our club appreciates how important the CCL is and relishes the opportunity in our first year to pursue something like that.”
New England Revolution
Revolution goalkeeper Matt Turner believes they have an ace up their sleeve in sporting director/head coach Bruce Arena. His logic? Arena’s led the US men’s national team at the 2002 and 2006 FIFA World Cups, plus in various Concacaf Gold Gups.
“It should be interesting, unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of before," Turner said. "But Bruce coached the national team and he’s got experience in those types of tournaments and in those types of situations, so he’ll know what it takes to get out of the group stage and into the knockout rounds.”
“We are in our town, it’s a privilege for us,” Nani said. “Obviously, we are much more excited to be home and feel the [welcome] of our town. We hope to do great, to do well and we are so excited. We can’t wait to start this tournament, because it’s a big opportunity for all of us.”
The Philadelphia Union will be moving to full team training in Delaware on Friday, June 12 – the club and other Philly sports teams are still waiting final approval from the state of Pennsylvania – and head coach Jim Curtin says “there certainly is a lot more excitement at training every day … It’s getting real now.”
“Tomorrow’s a big day,” Curtin told media about the MLS is Back Tournament draw taking place on Thursday.
“We’ve done well in elimination type of games in that format and we want that to continue,” Curtin continued, referencing recent U.S. Open Cup runs. “That’s a credit to our players who have a way of when it’s do or die and the loser goes home, they have a way of really stepping up. And the goal is to get over that hump and win that final game. We’ve been very close. This is still an opportunity with a trophy on the line that we want to win. The prize money on the line – a million plus dollars on the line for the players. That motivates people, it really does. And so does that Champions League berth for how much that means prestige-wise and exposure-wise for the clubs.”
Like a few other teams, the Portland Timbers had more than a few injury headaches prior to the league’s hiatus, and head caoch Giovanni Savarese confirmed on a conference call Wednesday that the time off had allowed most of those afflicted the chance to heal. New signing Jaroslaw Niezgoda is fully training after a heart procedure in January that has kept him from debuting, while Savarese also confirmed that Jorge Moreira, Andres Flores, Bill Tuiloma and Jeff Attinella were all training as well, leaving Dairon Asprilla as the only significant name on the injury list after he underwent meniscus surgery several weeks ago.
Savarese said he and his staff have been weighing the costs and benefits of arriving in Orlando on the early side or closer to the start of the tournament, and though have not yet decided, Savarese is certain that no matter where, a quick return to full team training could be critical for his team’s chances.
“This is a moment in which not everything is perfect, so we have been challenged … to make sure we get the team ready,” said Savarese. “The good thing is that if we are able to soon return to full training with a full team that will be a great situation because I will feel then that we will be closer to being better fit to start the tournament.
“I think everyone is challenging themselves to make sure we can prepare the players the best possible way to complete because we not only want to be there, but also we want to make the tournament competitive, that the quality is good.”
Real Salt Lake
As one of three seeded teams in the Western Conference, Real Salt Lake coach Freddy Juarez is looking at the tournament as a potential avenue for the club to maybe finish some unfinished business from a decade ago. The Claret-and-Cobalt were the first MLS team to reach the Concacaf Champions League final in 2011, and the stakes of a berth in the 2021 tournament have extra meaning for RSL, Juarez said.
"When I got the head coaching job (at RSL), one of my biggest things was, I wanted to really compete in the [U.S.] Open Cup for that reason, trying to get a Champions League birth. For me, MLS is so close to becoming a [league] that can win that championship. Real Salt Lake has been in that final. It’s part of our history."
As the defending MLS Cup Champions, the Seattle Sounders had among the shortest offseasons in MLS this past winter, and were without playmaker Nicolas Lodeiro for the early part of their 2020 campaign as he recovered from hamstring tendinitis. For them, the opportunity to hit the reset button, prepare for a month of MLS is Back and then resume the regular season is about the big picture.
"We actually haven’t even seen our team play together yet," Sounders GM Garth Lagerwey said during a conference call. "Nico Lodeiro has not stepped on a soccer field for seven months. We have not seen him play with Joao Paulo, or Gustav (Svensson) or Cristian Roldan or Jordan Morris. We haven’t seen that group of players play together.
"That’s one of the exciting things to watch in Florida. Where, you can watch our team just as we have in stretch runs and playoffs. We can get better hopefully every game while we’re down there and potentially (build toward) our title defense, where we look at that tournament not just as three-to-seven games, but as, 'Is that the bridge to give us the foundation to get back into the season to go try to win the thing again?'"
Sporting Kansas City
Florida summers can take their toll, so games are set to begin at 9 am, 8 pm and 10:30 pm EST. Sporting right back Graham Zusi, an Orlando native, thinks his team has a built-in advantage as they train in their home market before games begin.
“We get a little bit of a sense already of what it’s going to be like down there,” Zusi said of a Kansas City summer. “I wouldn’t usually say this, but we’re lucky to have the weather that we have right now to prepare us for the heat and humidity of Florida. I think that we’ll be one of the few teams that gets a little bit of a sense of it before we get down there."
Vancouver Whitecaps head coach Marc Dos Santos emphasized the importance of getting a strong start in the World-Cup style tournament and stressed that his players were raring to go.
“It’s preparing the players for a sprint, preparing the players to qualify, to be a surprise and go as far as possible, if not to win the tournament," he told reporters on a conference call Wednesday. "And that’s the mindset we want to have.
“[We’ve] prepared now for a while since we knew this would be a possibility. They all have a belief of looking at this as an opportunity for everyone. So it’s exciting and we’re getting ready and we will be ready in game one.”