The MLS is Back group-stage has come and gone. It seems like just yesterday when a cross bounced off a hapless Nico Figal and into the path of Nani, who tucked home a 97th minute winner for Orlando in the tournament opener. Quite a lot has followed in the 18 days after the first installment of the Floridian rivalry between Orlando and Miami. Columbus has rolled over anyone standing in it’s way, SKC proved that it’s early season from was no fluke, last season’s two worst teams advanced, and worst of all, Orlando is...uh, good? Yep, they are. Well, I suppose that’s what can happen when you hire a good coach...
Anyways, here are the three storylines that stood out from the group-stage and what to look forward to as the elimination rounds near.
The Early Game Does Not Catch the Goals
When the tournament schedule was released, one of the most surprising aspects was the 9 AM kickoffs. A space that had always been home to European soccer could now lay claim to MLS action, at least for a few weeks. Well, action probably isn’t the right word. The nine early morning matches saw a mere 16 goals, 1.7 a game. In stark contrast, there were 8 night games with four goals or more, and a goals per game rate of 3.07.
It isn’t just that morning games land lower caliber teams (although DC having two AM matches definitely didn’t help). As someone who suffered through a couple of slogs that at least put me back to sleep so I could be ready for the late night goal-fests, the tempo was markedly slower. Perhaps the increased heat that the sun brings compared to night, or the atypical nature of morning matches disrupted the players ‘s rhythm. One way or another, 9 AM games were not a success. Fortunately, the knock-out rounds, which promise to be wild enough no matter what time it is, are all at night. Buckle up!
Columbus and SKC Prove Value, and Look Poised for a Deep Run
Two of the most hyped teams coming into the season were the Columbus Crew and Sporting Kansas City, and after 5 matches, that hype seems justified. The Midwestern sides take up the top spot in both their respective conferences and tournament group. The big offseason moves have paid off, too. The Crew’s Lucas Zelarayán has three goals and one assist so far, while Kansas’s Alan Pulido notched three goals and two assists. These have arguably been the best two teams in the league, and yet both can go much farther, and take a real shot at whatever trophy MLS came up with for the tournament.
Columbus takes on Minnesota United Tuesday. The Loons can certainly cause some problems, and haven’t reached it’s best yet in Orlando. The Crew, though, are the better side on paper, especially in the final third and midfield. Should Columbus move on to the quarter-finals, it would play either San Jose or RSL. Neither would be a pushover, but Caleb Porter’s side should fancy it’s chances. After that, things would get tricky. Seattle or LAFC will be the most likely semi-finalist from the other side of the bracket. Columbus would need a good deal of luck against LA, but it did draw away at Seattle back in March, so a final spot is entirely possible.
SKC, on the other hand, should have no issue with Vancouver in the Round of 16, but if the Philadelphia Union beat New England, we could have a fascinating quarter-final on the menu. Those are some of the most in-form sides, and both love to attack. Hoo boy, that would be fun. Anyways, the winner of that would be the favorite in the semi-final, versus TFC/NYCFC or Portland/FCC.
A Columbus-SKC final isn’t likely to be on the cards, but if one of the two was still in Florida on August 11th, I would not be the least bit surprised.
NYC and Ronny Deila Squeak Through, But is Still Alive and on the Job
One of the biggest surprises was two of the best teams from 2019 barely making it out of the group-stage. NYC and Seattle both needed last minutes victories over Miami and Vancouver, respectively, to go through. The Citizens situation was the most dire, needing other results to go it’s way in order to advance as one of the four best 3rd place teams on goal differential. New York’s newly appointed head coach, Ronny Deila, has not gotten off to a bright start, with just two goals scored all season and four straight losses prior to the win over Miami. It won’t get much easier, either. Toronto FC is the Pigeon’s Round of 16 opponent. TFC seems to have NYC’s number, having eliminated it from the playoffs twice and dominating the all time record as well. But if Deila were to win the Sunday night showdown, the pressure on his shoulders would drastically decrease, or so you would think. A loss, though, means advancing only delayed the scrutiny on the Norwegian and whether he’s the right man for the job.
Atlanta United may be eliminated, but at least now we can sit back, relax, mull over the meaning of life and how it relates to whether de Boer is fired or not (-Editor’s Note: WELP) and see what the rest of MLS manages to concocture down in DisneyLand. Enjoy!