The biggest takeaway from the first three games of the MLS is Back Tournament is that these games — I'll be honest and say especially the first two — did not feel like typical MLS regular-season summer games. There was a higher level of intensity in closing down build-outs and a rough physical edge. I'm not going to say "playoff intensity," but it was something close to that.
And that makes for good viewing. I'd guess teams were about 10 or 15% sloppier, but while turnovers can be frustrating, every turnover is a transition opportunity and most of the teams that have played thus far were hunting for exactly that.
It was fun. It was good to see MLS again.
Pursuit of Happiness
Orlando City came into the league in 2015. Orlando City fans experienced their first rivalry win in 2020. That is an insane wait, and probably goes some distance in explaining the high-strung mien on Lions fans on social media.
The final over Inter Miami was 2-1 thanks to some late heroics from Nani, who had an assist on the equalizer (watch how Chris Mueller's run goes all the way to the back post, kids) and poached a late winner after Miami's defense did a Benny Hill thing trying to clear a cross. I'm not going to come out and say that Orlando were clearly the better team, but you pay your DPs to be match-winners and that's what Nani was on the night.
This is a drastic change from this time last year, mind you, when the Portuguese winger scored just one goal over a three-month stretch last summer as the Lions fell out of the playoff picture. So I have my doubts that he'll sustain this (he generally isn't at his best in the heat), but playing his natural inverted left wing role in Oscar Pareja's sturdy 4-2-3-1 should give him the platform he needs to mostly just attack.
There was nothing else particularly noteworthy about Orlando's play, save for newly arrived box-to-box MF Junior Urso looking a step off the pace and, of course, that extra bit of physical edge we saw from Antonio Carlos on the backline and Dom Dwyer up top (Dom, as is his want, was throwing 'bows like prime Anderson Silva).
As the video hints at without explicitly saying: Miami were the better team from minutes 30-50 and it looked very much like the switch to a 3-5-2 had nullified Orlando's central midfield advantage and actually allowed more of the Inter players the freedom to get forward. The most common criticism of the 3-5-2 is that it tends to be inflexible, but with the way Inter played it on the night it definitely wasn't.
So there was a lot of promise to the evening from the point of view of Diego Alonso & Co, and for the second game in a row you could say that Miami had figured out how to be the better team... right up until a catastrophic moment cost them a center back. In March it was a Roman Torres red card, and in this game it was one of those Dwyer elbows that floored Andres Reyes and forced Alonso to adjust his formation into what looked much more like a 4-5-1 for the final 40 minutes of the game.
Which is all by way of saying this: Miami are the first team since Toronto FC way back in 2007 to lose each of their first three MLS games, but I'm actually convinced they're closer to "pretty good!" than they are to "pretty bad!" They have had rotten luck and a stern depth test already, and while they haven't exactly survived it, there's plenty indicating that they're not dead in the water.
I'm not going to say anything about Juan Agudelo yet except "that's the run you'd like to see a goal-hungry No. 9 make." As always with Juan the question isn't ability, it's whether he'll consistently make those runs and get the tap-ins that are a center forward's lifeblood.
Just What I Am
Of the three games we've seen, it's probably not a coincidence that Philly's 1-0 win over NYCFC was the one played at the highest level. Given that these two sides are playoff teams from last year and return the vast majority of their minutes and firepower, it just makes sense that even after a four-month COVID lay-off, they'd be the ones that got out there and were closest to complete.
And so yeah, that + a little bit of rustiness in attacking patterns + two young center backs appearing to level up before our eyes made for a fairly tight, defensive encounter:
Good read & great ball from McKenzie, followed by a great read & step from Sands.— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) July 9, 2020
Young CBs doing work this morning. pic.twitter.com/0zhikeTiol
Mark McKenzie and James Sands were both excellent, though in the end let's credit Philly's goalkeeper Andre Blake for being the man of the match. NYCFC, for all their struggles on the day in terms of breaking apart the Union's diamond with the ball, did eventually figure out how to use their width and pace to get out into transition, letting runners flow forward off of Heber's hold-up play and forcing Blake into two massive saves late on.
Two things to note here: First is that without Sergio Santos, Philly didn't really have any threat to get in behind and thus NYCFC were able to keep their lines compact and constantly clog the half-spaces, which probably accounts for the quiet evenings from Brenden Aaronson and Jamiro Monteiro.
Second is that NYCFC have now played three MLS games this season and have scored zero goals. I'm not saying to mash the panic button or anything — Blake had himself a spectacular performance — but this ain't the start that Ronny Deila had hoped for.
Day 'n' Nite
Way back in February, Montreal's young right wingback Zachary Brault-Guillard had doused the New England Revolution defense in kerosene and lit a match. He was relentless and almost single-handedly broke the Revs' defensive shape.
That's why it was weird, in Thursday's 1-0 New England win, to see Brault-Guillard starting on the bench and regular d-mid Sam Piette starting as an inverted right wingback — literally a position I've never seen before. Here's a tiny bit of what it looked like:
Thierry Henry's tactical switch did have the effect of occasionally getting Piette on the ball in good spots, but it took forever to get there, and "good spots" is a relative term here. It could also be described as "good spots but with limited options since the Revs always had a set defense in front of him."
My guess is that the idea behind this was to put Orji Okwonkwo, the right winger in Henry's 5-4-1, in a situation where he could go at Revs left back Alex Buttner in isolation off the dribble time and again. Okwonkwo certainly got that chance, but went 0-for-4 off the dribble in the first half and Buttner was just able to keep everything in front of him. There was no threat to worry about other than Okwonkwo, and that was fine.
Here's the other effect of the decision (which I'm harping on because it was interesting, so just bear with me):
That's Piette flashing through the bottom right of the screen. But because he poses zero attacking threat and because his starting point is so central, Kelyn Rowe is not at all bothered to follow him to the touchline. Why on earth would he? Instead, Rowe just ballhawks in the lanes, intercepts a hospital ball and began one of myriad New England transition opportunities in the first half.
Henry, to his credit, dropped Okwonkwo for Brault-Guillard, shifted Piette inside and played a more traditional 3-5-2 in the second half. Piette's the one who actually set up the Impact's best chance of the game with a little slip pass at the top of the box.
Bruce Arena, to his credit, had his team come out of the mid-block and actually press the Impact for most of the second half, and that's what led to the game's only goal:
The Revs were open and fun. In a world in which many games are decided by how seriously you take the central midfield numbers game, Arena let Rowe (excellent) and Scott Caldwell (pretty good) man the middle themselves with occasional help from Gustavo Bou dropping back or Carles Gil pinching in. I suspect Alejandro Pozuelo and Edison Flores will make more of that numbers advantage in the Revs' remaining group games than the Impact were able to, but you don't know for sure until you see it play out on the field.
Two other notes on the Revs: First, DP center forward Adam Buksa's lack of pace might be a concern, as he was pretty consistently making the right run, but just couldn't quite create enough separation or couldn't quite catch up to the pass. And second, for as sturdy as the defense looked in open play, they did look very vulnerable on set pieces.