When set to kick off competitive tournament play after a long layoff, it's natural for teams to aim for their form to mount as the games unfold.
However, thanks to the luck of the schedule draw, there are several clubs that won't have the luxury of shooting for gradual improvement as they navigate the MLS Is Back Tournament. And that's not just because all of the group matches will count in the regular season standings.
No, some teams will want to surge out of the blocks in Orlando to avoid having their tourney hopes squashed quickly. It should come as no surprise most of the clubs in the list that follows will face their toughest group opponent in the second game. Nobody wants to square off against a monster with the spectre of an early ouster looming, so immediately banking points should be of the most concern for the five teams below.
You may also notice there are no teams from Group D listed, as every game in it promises to be a high-pressure event. I could easily see two teams dropping their openers, and then eventually being the ones to finish at the top. It's that tight, with nothing but evenly-matched and contentious match-ups from start to finish. So umm... good luck with all of that, Group D combatants.
Columbus Crew SC
The Crew are in a vaguely similar but much tougher boat than Chicago. Columbus will also open with their "easiest" opponent, but then must face a pair of killer adversaries to get out of Group E. Why the quotation marks around "easiest"? Well, that's because that first game, against Hell Is Real enemy FC Cincinnati July 11 (10:30 pm ET | FS1, TUDN, TSN), likely won't be that easy after all. It may just seem like it compared to the ensuing matches against the press-happy New York Red Bulls and the tired team tormentors of Atlanta United. So yeah, bagging a quick three points out of the gate seems prudent.
It was already highly advisable for the Carson crew to get something out of their starter against Portland July 13 (10:30 pm ET | FS1, TUDN, TSN, TVAS) even before news broke that Jonathan dos Santos will miss the tournament to have hernia surgery. Now, it's downright vital. That's because the Galaxy, who are still trying to figure out their attack rebuild, must stare down bitter rivals LAFC in the next group game. The idea of heading into their last Group F match without any points (and, it bears noting, into their fifth Western Conference tilt of the season with but one point pocketed) is unsavory, to put it mildly.
If Group F is lining up to be a nail-biting battle royale until the end, Group C isn't far behind it. As tight as this group looks, most observers would probably tab the Impact as the underdogs here (mainly because, as Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle recently outlined, their strike situation is an open mystery). As such, beating New England in the opener July 9 (8 pm ET | Twitter, TUDN, TSN, TVAS) would grant them the huge luxury of heading into their showdown against derby foe Toronto FC with some points already safely in the bank. The alternatives would be worlds more stressful.
Orlando City SC
The tournament hosts will get the party started by clashing with new in-state nemesis Inter Miami CF for the first time July 8 (8 pm ET | ESPN, TSN, TVAS) . Of course, the last thing Orlando City want to do is drop their first Florida derby, and then tackle New York City FC while backed into a must-win corner. Even in a group that could see four teams on to the knockouts, that scenario comes off as a recipe for disaster. Rather, make that a double disaster, because the Lions are one of three teams here that failed to win either of their first two league games of the season.