It might not be an MLS Cup or Supporters' Shield, but the MLS is Back Tournament will still hold great value to the eventual champion, even beyond the Concacaf Champions League spot and prize money.
Players, coaches, fans and media often talk about how top clubs have "a winning mentality" or "a culture of winning" that boost their efforts. But what if that's really just team confidence earned by, ya know, winning something?
MLS powers through the years got their rolls started with a single triumph, and the MLS is Back Tournament (which will not be easy to win) would certainly count as that. Heck, it could be the confidence boost needed to alter a franchise’s entire outlook.
There are clubs still waiting to lift a trophy for the first time, while others work on regaining lost magic. Some are impressively on the rise, and some have recently disappointed. All of them could seriously use a win in Orlando to steady a confident, winning course to the future.
Columbus Crew SC
It’s been a stressful few years for the fans in Columbus. The Crew painfully fell just short of reaching MLS Cup in 2017, dealt with a long and irritating relocation saga and badly slipped last season to miss the playoffs by a sizable margin. Along the way, injuries repeatedly robbed them of key players. They have five trophies in their case, but haven't added to it since 2009. I'm sure the locals would agree that it's time to snap that dry spell.
Not counting the 2020 expansion teams, there are five MLS clubs yet to take home a major trophy of any kind. Of those teams, NYCFC have been the "one most likely to change that" – at least on paper – for a few years now. Of course, they're also basically starting on their third head coach in the last two years. A win in Orlando would cool Bronx nerves on multiple levels.
The Loons came agonizingly close to breaking the franchise trophy duck by reaching last year's U.S. Open Cup final. They then started the 2020 campaign looking like a team scarily intent on getting that job done. Now that the COVID-19 pause is nearly over, Minnesota’s tournament opponents best be prepared for a team itching to check that task off their franchise to-do list.
Of all the teams with reasons to aim for the MLS is Back crown, the Lions may be more transformed by a tournament triumph than anyone. It's been five straight years watching the Audi MLS Playoffs from home, and they sometimes seem to be getting further away as the years go by. That's a lot of built-up tension and longing for something to celebrate. Oh, and did you know they'll be the tournament’s de facto hosts?
Philly are a balanced, deep squad capable of winning in Orlando. Like the Loons, they've been reaching new franchise heights over the last couple seasons and seem primed for more. Unlike all the teams listed here, they've built up their own unique brand of title-less frustration by dropping three Open Cup finals in the last six years.
Real Salt Lake
Every once in a while, certain teams need to remind everyone that they're truly dangerous. Despite sustained quality, the RSL bunch haven't actually rode off with a prize since the 2009 MLS Cup. That's despite managing to finish as the runners-up for the CCL in 2011, plus MLS Cup and the Open Cup in 2013. If "once in a while" comes due in Orlando, does the confidence to launch another winning era come with it?