Statistically, judging exclusively on last season's regular-season finishes, New York City FC vs. the Philadelphia Union is the best matchup of the MLS is Back Tournament Group Stage presented by Heineken.
Of course, no one stat can stand on its own and there are plenty of other group games that are in the conversation for best at the tournament. LAFC vs. LA Galaxy had more combined points last year, buoyed by the former's historic season, as well as more hype with the rivalry. Group D has three of the league's four teams that started this season 2-0-0. Still, it's a quick way of saying that NYCFC vs. Philly should be one of the most anticipated group games of the tournament.
It also may be one of the defining matches of Group A, as Philly and NYCFC kick off Thursday's action (9 am ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes, TSN). Here are some things to know.
First look at the 9 am kickoff
We get our first taste of breakfast soccer at the tournament in this match. Not that it's any different to supporters who also watch European soccer on weekends, but for players, it'll likely be their first competitive games at that hour since their youth soccer days.
Union captain Alejandro Bedoya joked that he's not looking forward to waking up at 5:30 am to get his pre-match meal in, but with both teams going through the new experience for the first time together, it'll be an even playing field.
The time slot helps MLS avoid both Orlando's heat and propensity for afternoon thunderstorms. It'll still be plenty hot and humid, but it'll be manageable, particularly with the temporary five substitution rule.
Speaking of: Which manager will go to their bench earlier? Will either or both utilize all five subs?
"NYCFC are the best team in our conference"
Never mind simply Group A, Union head coach Jim Curtin laid down the praise for his return-to-play opponents. And first-year NYCFC boss Ronny Deila didn't hesitate in agreeing.
"NYCFC, for me on paper, are the best team in our conference," Curtin told reporters last week. "They're very strong in all aspects. We're breaking down film now, they played really good soccer. I know it's three or four months ago now, but they have a very good coach, they're well organized and their talent speaks for themselves."
The Union are bullish on their own talent and depth, too. Curtin heads into the match with lineup headaches both good, with depth and competition, and not so good, with a few players questionable for the game.
Forwards Sergio Santos and Andrew Wooten have picked up knocks and aren't certain to be available for the opener. If neither can start alongside Kacper Przybylko, then Curtin may give Homegrown talent Jack de Vries his MLS debut. Curtin has noted a few times after Philly returned to training that de Vries has impressed him and his staff.
Pre-tournament awards hype?
The MLS is Back Tournament will unveil a number of awards to go alongside the final trophy, including Player of the Tournament presented by adidas and more. MLSsoccer.com's Andrew Wiebe thinks both NYCFC and Philly could have an award winner.
Sean Johnson is his pick for Golden Glove presented by Allstate while he tipped rising Philly star Brenden Aaronson as the top domestic option to win Young Player of the Tournament presented by AT&T. I'll let Wiebe take it away from here:
Brenden Aaronson, who is, incredibly, still just 19 years old and has three goals in his past eight MLS regular-season games. That’s a good trend. Aaronson knows the next step in his development is a consistent final product, and unlike many teenage American talents, he’ll get the minutes to put up numbers with the Union. As my Kacper Przybylko shout shows, I am high on the Union. I’ve got them winning Group A in my Bracket Challenge.
Aaronson does a little bit of everything, which I think will help him stand out, but it’s the goals and assists that I expect will get him enough attention to be in the running for the Young Player of the Tournament award. With Jamiro Monteiro, Alejandro Bedoya and a dedicated defensive midfielder behind him, Przybylko and Sergio Santos in front of him and Raymon Gaddis and Kai Wagner running the flanks, Aaronson will get chances to deliver on his potential as a budding American No. 10. I hope and expect him to deliver.