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Atlanta United drawn with Red Bulls, Crew, FC Cincy in MLS Tournament Group Stage

We got a rivalry in the Group E

SOCCER: JUL 07 MLS - New York Red Bulls at Atlanta United FC Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The MLS is Back tournament draw wrapped up Thursday afternoon with Atlanta United being drawn into Group E alongside FC Cincinnati, Columbus Crew SC, and an old foe, New York Red Bulls.

It’s a difficult group for Atlanta, as a Darlington Nagbe-led Columbus Crew team is expected to be much improved from last season, and the club is still yet to defeat the Red Bulls in a regular season game in its short history. As for FC Cincy... they’re kinda screwed.

As the top team in Group E, Atlanta will kick off the tournament on July 12, four days after Orlando and Inter Miami play the ceremonial opening match. MLS placed Miami in Orlando’s Group A just hours prior to the draw, removing the expansion side from having any chance to land inn Atlanta’s group. But playing its opening game on the latest possible date is exactly what the club was hoping for coming into the draw:

Clubs needn’t report to Orlando until a week prior to their opening matches of the tournament, so as team play-by-play commentator Mike Conti stated in the tweet above, Atlanta will get several more nights to train and sleep at home.

Of course, that advantage won’t be Atlanta’s alone — the rest of their group stage opponents will have the same late opportunity. So let’s give ourselves a quick refresh on Atlanta’s opponents.

Columbus Crew

You could call the Crew a “dark horse,” or you could just call them a legit contender to top this group. The Crew are a more dynamic, pacy, physical team than they were a year ago. Gone are the likes of longtime fixtures Wil Trapp and Pippa Higuain — good players in their own right — and replaced by Nagbe in midfield and its record $8 million signing from Tígres, Lucas Zelarayán, in the attack. To add to those upgrades, the Crew reinforced with MLS experience to pair alongside Gyasi Zardes up front in the form of Fenando Adi. Managed by an MLS Cup winning manager in Caleb Porter, it’d be a surprise if the Crew aren’t one of the teams making it out of this group.

FC Cincinnati

I suppose the good news for FC Cincy in this situation is that the club has found some stability after firing its new head coach Ron Jans late in the 2020 preseason after he allegedly made insensitive racial remarks in front of some members of the team. The club found his replacement during the hiatus in Jaap Stam, a hugely successful center back in his day, making 67 appearances for the Netherlands while playing for clubs like Manchester United, AC Milan, and Ajax in the late 90s and early 2000s.

But that’s about the only good news. The roster still leaves a lot to be desired, and Atlanta has already beaten Cincinnati once this year. That said, it wasn’t an easy win for Atlanta, and Cincinnati is capable of staying deep and organized off the ball and nicking a goal on a counter. But any team that fails to take three points here will be losing ground in the group.

New York Red Bulls

It had to happen, didn’t it?

The Red Bulls have a bunch of guys you’ve never heard of, but also have known your entire life. Brian White. Tom Barlow. Alex Muyl. Sean Davis. These are bastards. You can usually spot them because they are wearing something like No. 91. They have no sense of shame, and therefore they have nothing to lose — and that’s what makes them dangerous. You might be looking at the Red Bulls like, “well Tyler Adams isn’t there anymore and I don’t think Bradley Wright-Phillips is still on the team.” While technically you’re right, your intuition is wrong. The Red Bulls are assholes that will scratch and claw and be annoyingly potent, so long as Chris Armas doesn’t blow it with the tactics. And they still have Kaku, who is legitimately a good player.

In all honesty, you can’t help but wonder if the long break and lack of fitness will hurt a team like Red Bulls more than most. When Armas is not blowing it, his team is a high-pressing menace that wins with organization, aggression and desire as opposed to technique and finesse. But that’s also why Red Bulls almost always hit their stride later into the season, when the flow of matches works to their advantage. Can they effectively replicate the style they’re known for after the long break in play? Can Armas figure out how to organize them in a modified mid-block? We’ll see, but no Atlanta fan will expect an easy fixture here.