Group stage games for the MLS is Back tournament start next month, and right away teams will be hungry for positive results. As we know, the group stage will count towards regular-season standings, and nine points are up for grabs as each team will play three matches.
As we look forward to the start of the tournament, we should take a step back and see where the teams in Group E left off before the league was suspended.
Two wins from the opening two fixtures saw Atlanta go top of the Eastern Conference. The new season began with wins against Nashville and fellow Group E contender FC Cincinnati, both by 2-1 score lines. Atlanta is a favorite to advance from the group even without Josef Martinez. The tournament will prove to be a good opportunity for Atlanta to maintain their position in first and potentially put more distance between themselves and second.
Cincinnati was one of three sides without a win in the East, the other two being Inter Miami and NYCFC. The side was in 11th prior to the suspension, only above Miami and NYCFC for more goals scored. Both of their losses came from sides they now share a group with, Atlanta and NY Red Bulls. Cincinnati is not expected to make it out of the group but isn’t a team to underestimate. The tournament offers the chance for a fresh start under new manager Jaap Stam and earn their first point(s) of the 2020 season.
NY Red Bulls
The side Atlanta fans love to hate. The Red Bulls were second in the East and just two points behind Atlanta. NY opened their campaign with a close 3-2 victory over Cincinnati before a 1-1 draw against Real Salt Lake. This could prove to be a great opportunity for RBNY to challenge conference rivals and go into first if Atlanta were to slip up. The Five Stripes have yet to beat NY in the regular season, so the pressure will be on Atlanta to get all three points.
The Hell is Real derby comes to Group E. The group stage fixture between Columbus and Cincinnati is one many will be looking forward to, but the side will have tough competition from Atlanta and Red Bulls as well. Columbus won’t shy away from the competition in Group E. Prior to the league suspension, the Crew opened the season with a 1-0 win over NYCFC before drawing 1-1 with defending MLS Champions Seattle. The side sat 5th, two points behind Atlanta and level with the Red Bulls in second, only behind on goals scored. But results against quality competition before the league’s hiatus show that Columbus is a renewed force in the league this year.
Cincinnati has no pressure on them and this could go in their favor. They will see this tournament as an opportunity to restart their campaign and move up in the table. Any points they manage to get from their fixtures should be viewed as a success. However, anything less than a victory for Atlanta, Columbus, and NY against Cincinnati will be seen as a missed opportunity, especially since they will have to face each other.
Atlanta may be more willing to accept draws than the other sides, but with the standings being so close the Five Stripes won’t want to take anything less than a win. The same goes for the Crew and Red Bulls. Both sides are just two points behind first place and have a serious opportunity to put pressure on Atlanta and other conference rivals.
These sides will be paying close attention to the fixtures from other groups as well. The league was suspended when the season had just begun, so any side can step up and assert themselves as favorites in the East.
Between the rivalries and league positions, every fixture in Group E will be important. None of the sides can afford to drop points as they strive to put themselves in the best possible position before the resumption of league play. The tournament is set up for the top two teams from each group to advance to the knockout round as well as the four best third-place finishers, which means every point is crucial.
Following the group stage, the knockout round fixtures will not count towards regular season standings. To prevent teams from losing interest beyond the group stage, the league has added some incentives. The winner of the tournament will clinch a berth in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League, and if that’s not enticing enough then the $1.1 million prize pool at stake should maintain the intensity.