The MLS Is Back Tournament schedule has dropped, giving everyone a gander at the winding roads that will lead to the August 11 final.
There were always going to be a few schedule quirks given the unique set-up for this tournament, but that's just the tip of the "oh my, that's interesting" iceberg when it comes to surveying the slate of matches.
What were my initial takeaways upon seeing the schedule? Well, since you asked...
Appetizers for the table
We already knew Inter Miami and Orlando City would kick off the competition with their first derby tilt. A juicy match-up, to be sure, but it's basically just an amuse-bouche for the tasting menu that is the first round of group games.
Looking across all the tournament openers, there is definitely something for everyone's palate. Hungry for more clashes between bitter rivals? Get set to dig your teeth into Colorado-Real Salt Lake and a Hell Is Real bout between Columbus and FC Cincinnati.
How about some fast-stewing rivalries? New York City FC vs. Philadelphia, Atlanta United vs. New York Red Bulls and Sporting KC vs. Minnesota United are also on the MLS Is Back first course. Throw in other meaty games like D.C. United-Toronto FC, LA Galaxy-Portland and San Jose-Seattle, and everyone is sure to be fat happy from soccer only a few days into the tournament.
When it comes to breakfast, the choice often comes down to savory or sweet. However, MLS fans should probably also get ready for some early morning saltiness.
Just the idea of waking up to home-cooked soccer was fun enough, but now the schedule has revealed a few truly mouth-watering A.M. showdowns. The NYCFC-Philly game mentioned above will take place in the morning slot, as will the generally entertaining FC Dallas-Seattle match-up and a bout between long distance rivals Real Salt Lake-Sporting KC.
Of course, these will probably be double espresso shot games for the fans in Salt Lake and Seattle, as their clubs are the only ones from either the Mountain or Pacific time zones to play in this morning slot.
Most teams will have 11 days to make their way through the group stage schedule, and a handful of clubs will get 12 days. The lone exceptions are Montreal and Orlando City, who will make the journey in 13 days after playing in both the first and last matches in their respective groups. After four months on ice, these extra days between group games could very well be something the Impact and Lions can take advantage of.
Sometimes the luck of the draw is good, and sometimes, well, not so much. This is about the not so much side. The use of six groups makes for an unbalanced Round of 16 bracket, meaning two group winners must start the knockouts against second place finishers while the other four teams get to face foes who finished no better than third.
Who must take these theoretically tougher assignments in the Sweet Sixteen? That would be the winners of Groups E and F. In fact, each of the top two Group F finishers are set up to draw a second place finisher in the Round of 16, leaving that table-topper shortchanged in two ways (at least on paper before the fact).
Instant dark horse?
One great way to arrange advancement to the knockouts in any tourney modeled after a World Cup is to win your first two group games. The third group game can then be a pressure-free chance to rotate some regulars. This strategy should be the easy aim for any team that has drawn what should easily be considered their toughest group game for last.
This time, the obvious pick to shoot for the knockouts in this manner is Chicago. The Fire will get to tackle expansion sides Nashville SC and Inter Miami first, before closing with Group A power NYCFC. The Windy City crew are roundly being overlooked as potential sleeper, but the draw has actually given them a favorable path to the Round of 16.