The road map to MLS Cup 2020 has taken shape, and it’s got a “Mad Max” vibe about it.
With the unique experience of the MLS is Back Tournament almost in the rearview mirror, another journey beckons as the league rolls out its plans for completing the regular season. Given the lessons of MLS is Back and the unprecedented circumstances overall, it’s safe to say that this will be one of the more wide-open title races in MLS history.
It’s not just that no one involved has ever done a schedule quite like this before, with teams playing 18 regionally-oriented matches over the next few months with short turnarounds, empty or mostly-empty stadiums and a new set of same-day travel logistics for away sides. It’s that every established contender faces questions and reasons for doubt – and so do most of those in the tiers below them. And the big success stories from MLS is Back have to prove, too, that their methods can be replicated and extended outside of a bubble tournament in tropical conditions.
All of this intends no disrespect to the Seattle Sounders, reigning MLS Cup champions and winners of two of the last four titles. The crown belongs to the Rave Green until someone comes and takes it from them, and despite a relatively underwhelming showing at MLS is Back, the Sounders have repeatedly shown an ability to respond to challenges and raise their level when it matters most.
Yet Seattle, along with the rest of what was generally perceived as the league’s elite tier of championship aspirants by Armchair Analyst Matt Doyle, the betting houses and many others back at the season’s original dawn in February, has work to do. Let’s breeze through that list, shall we?
LAFC are the Supporters’ Shield holders and remain the odds-on pick to hoist their first MLS Cup trophy come winter. They did reach their thundering, domineering best at the Tournament – the demolition of the Sounders was breathtaking at times – but they couldn’t keep it going throughout, dropping points in the group stage before meeting their match, at that moment at least, vs. Orlando City in the quarterfinals.
Watch the quarterfinal highlights:
Atlanta United are a shadow of their former MLS Cup-winning selves, looking so labored in all departments under the Florida sun that coach Frank de Boer was asked to depart soon after. They’re still without Josef Martinez and await the selection of a new leader with ATLUTD 2’s Stephen Glass filling in on an interim basis.
As impressive as their round-of-16 dispatching of Toronto FC was, NYCFC are clearly still figuring things out under their first-year coach Ronny Deila. They scored just twice over their first five league matches, winning only one of them, and looked ordinary again when they met the Portland Timbers in the MLS is Back quarters. They still rely heavily on their little magician Maxi Moralez and a wait-and-see attitude seems prudent for now.
And the aforementioned TFC are not exactly running on all cylinders either, in the midst of what coach Greg Vanney admits is a generational shift on his roster. Jozy Altidore’s physical issues have cropped up again (he played four minutes in Orlando), Pablo Piatti is still new to MLS and the defense can be downright frail at times.
Yes, you can toss other names into this mix, and I can run through a similar process for them, too.
Columbus Crew SC have looked outstanding for most of this strange, choppy campaign; however, Minnesota United gave everyone a blueprint for how to stymie them. New England just lost the enormously influential Carles Gil for the next three to five months. FC Dallas have to play catch-up in literal terms. The LA Galaxy look like they've got a lot to figure out, if we’re being honest. The MLS is Back semifinalist quartet all looked great in a tournament setting, but now have to do it all over again in a different context.
The next few months will serve up a sprint disguised as a season, and no one can be totally sure who’s got the right car for this race. Buckle up.