Exactly two weeks from the beginning of the MLS is Back Tournament, a return to play for top-tier American men’s soccer, the league released the group stage schedule and announced a slight adjustment to the requirements for advancing to the knockout stage.
Teams began entering the tournament “bubble” today in Orlando in hopes that an early entry into quarantine will limit contraction and spread of COVID-19, which has already caused the NWSL’s Orlando Pride to withdraw from the Challenge Cup — their return to play tournament set to begin in Utah this weekend — after six players tested positive.
Further unrest has been caused by numerous confirmed COVID-19 cases among players for Atlanta United and Colorado Rapids, one of Minnesota United’s Group D opponents.
For Minnesota, the tournament begins Sunday, July 12, and all three of their group stage matches will be in primetime or late evening on ESPN.
MATCH #1: 7/12 VS. SPORTING KANSAS CITY (7 p.m./ESPN)
The Loons’ opening match will take place against Sporting KC. Following eight consecutive MLS Playoff appearances, Sporting found themselves on the outside looking in last season. The “friendly rivals” bounced back to begin 2020, however, mirroring Minnesota’s 2-0-0 record.
While the Loons remain the better team on paper, it’s hard to ignore Sporting head coach Peter Vermes’ tournament pedigree. During his first 11 years at the helm, Kansas City have hoisted three U.S. Open Cups and an MLS Cup. In addition, this encounter will be a measuring stick of sorts for how much full practice time will impact early matches. Sporting hold the advantage of being one of the first MLS teams to return to full team training and did so a full week ahead of Minnesota.
PREDICTION: 1-1 DRAW
With extended practice time as a unit and the almost assured possibility Vermes will have his squad ready to go, I anticipate Kansas City to hold the possession advantage pretty handily over the first half-hour, with forward Alan Pulido picking up right where he left off and netting the match’s opening goal.
The Loons find their feet and rhythm offensively after halftime. Passing becomes more crisp, Jan Gregus and Osvaldo Alonso find better timing with the front four. Still, rust and lack of conditioning plays a factor and impacts Minnesota’s ability to get a high-percentage scoring chance. That’s when the depth comes into play.
Raheem Edwards and Thomas Chacon sub in together in the second half, and both play a major factor in the final stage of the match. Tyler Miller starts a counterattack that finds a fresh Edwards up the left side of the pitch. An advancing pass to Chacon and a stellar low cross on the button to Luis Amarilla’s left foot provides the equalizer.
The squads trade chances over the final 15 minutes with no fruit to bear.
MATCH #2: 7/17 VS. REAL SALT LAKE (9:30 p.m./ESPN)
This matchup features the top two teams in Group D in terms of 2019 playoff positioning, and is an opportunity for Minnesota United to shed some demons, as many believe the Loons would have finished where RSL did last year, if it weren’t for their late-season scoring drought.
Much like the Loons, Salt Lake was one of the final teams to advance to the full team portion of their training schedule. With that being said, with 90 game-minutes under their belt and the quality that both squads showed last season, this has potential to be an early “Match of the Tournament” candidate.
PREDICTION: 2-1 MINNESOTA
I expect Minnesota’s build-up play to be much more effective early in their second match, similar to how the San Jose match started. Ethan Finlay sends a beautiful through-ball to Kevin Molino for an early breakthrough: 1-0.
Salt Lake is too good of a squad to let the game get away from them. After the 30-minute mark they begin to turn up the pressure. Just after halftime a corner finds the head of Damir Kreilach and evens the score at 1-1.
Minnesota, again, uses depth to its advantage in the final half-hour. This time, it’s in the form of Hassani Dotson. Wanting to both preserve a tie and provide potential for a game-winner, Dotson’s ability to defend and attack from the midfield makes him the perfect piece for Adrian Heath to utilize in this scenario.
Dotson finds the ball at his feet after a blocked shot and races across midfield. He, Molino and Robin Lod have a 3-on-2. Dotson gives to Lod and finds a soft spot with the man advantage. Lod provides the service and Dotson finds the back of the net. Loons fans everywhere go crazy as they get three points from the top seed in the group.
Match #3: 7/22 VS. COLORADO RAPIDS (9:30 p.m./ESPN)
Colorado has two big advantages heading into MLS is Back.
First, they finished off last season strong. After firing then head coach Anthony Hudson amidst an 11-game winless streak to start 2019, the Rapids began to come alive with Conor Casey at the helm. Casey, however, would depart the team in August to pursue other opportunities, making Robin Fraser the team’s third head coach of the season. Fraser picked up right where Casey left off, finishing the season with a 5-2-0 record and starting 2020 with two wins.
Second, they were one of the first squads in the league to train together as a unit, beginning full-team practice June 10. It will be interesting to see if, by the third group stage match, more practice time will continue to play a factor.
PREDICTION: 1-0 COLORADO
The group finale for both teams provides little offensive success in the early going. Minnesota’s back wall of Ike Opara, Romain Metanire, Michael Boxall and Chase Gasper holds strong, but offensively the Loons struggle.
After a scoreless first half, Colorado gets on the board just after halftime via a rocket from Kei Kamara.
Mason Toye and Aaron Schoenfeld both come on as Adrian Heath switches to a multi-striker look to try and equalize. However, the Rapids pack in the defense and make it tough for Minnesota to find any space in the attacking third.
Over the last 10 minutes, long-balls rain over the top from Gregus and Molino, but to no avail.
Try as they might, the Loons fail to find the equalizer and have to hope for a “Wild Card” spot to advance to the knockout rounds.
In addition to releasing the tournament schedule, MLS also announced a minor adjustment to how teams can advance out of the group stage. Three teams, instead of two, in Group A will earn automatic berths into the Round of 16. The remaining five groups will have two teams advance automatically, with the top three third place teams from Groups B-F earning “Wild Card” bids.
Being in arguably the tournament’s most well-rounded group won’t make it easy, but if the Loons can manage at least four points, as they do in my prediction, they have a good opportunity to grab one of those bids and advance past the group stage.
MLS is Back kicks off Saturday, July 8 at the Disney Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando.