MLS Minute: Predicting MLS is Back Tournament

This Wednesday marks the return of Major League Soccer. The teams will be divided into six groups of four, with Group A being the outlier with six teams do to uneven numbers. Instead of going through all the rules, and a general overview of the tournament, I’ll send you here where that has already been done. Instead, I’ve made predictions on who will be advancing past the group stage in each group. In some cases, the third-placed team will advance, but I’ve chosen to select just the top two from each group.

Here are my predictions:

Group A

Orlando City SC, Inter Miami CF, New York City FC, Philadelphia Union, Chicago Fire, Nashville SC.

Who Will Advance?

New York City FC: Last year, NYCFC finished top of the Eastern Conference table, and managed to have very little turnover heading into 2020. This makes them obvious favorites. Héber is one of the best #9s in MLS, Maxi Moralez is in similar company amongst #10s and is coming off a 20-assist season, just the third player in MLS history to reach that figure. The surrounding cast in attack of Alexandru Mitriță, Ismael Tajouri-Shradi, and Taty Castellanos means that goalscoring is not limited to Héber and Maxi Moralez.

The team also has just welcomed Nicolás Acevedo to the club, and he will likely play a role in the team’s success in 2020. The Uruguayan midfielder will likely complete a midfield trio which already features Alex Ring and Maxi Moralez, both of which have been named All-Stars in 2018 and 2019. The only issue the club may run into is new boss Ronny Deila. While the Norwegian himself is not the issue, the fact that the club has only played a handful of matches under him is. In a tournament as short as this, it is teams who can quickly build the best atmosphere around themselves that tend to succeed. Luckily, the lack of turnover between seasons on the players end should equate to success.

Philadelphia Union: Kevin Durant’s recently became a part of the ownership group in Philadelphia, but the club has more reason to be excited than that. Last year the Union finished in third place out in the Eastern Conference, just three points behind Atlanta United.  The club opted to keep a majority of the roster, just like NYCFC, and can likely build off of last season.

The club does a great job of mixing academy-produced talent, with low profile, highly productive players like Kacper Przybylko and Jamiro Monteiro. It’d be fair to say Philadelphia is a sneaky good club, and they’ve earned it. The 76ers were big fans of “trusting the process” and it succeeded. However, it wasn’t the only organization to trust the process and find success in their city, and Union players want to put that on display.

Group B

Real Salt Lake, Sporting Kansas City, Colorado Rapids, Minnesota United FC.

Who Will Advance?

Sporting Kansas City: SKC are coming off of a very tough season where they finished just four points above last-placed Vancouver Whitecaps FC in the Western Conference. Despite this, I’m still excited to see them in the tournament, thanks to the return of Khiry Shelton, who spent time in Germany, but more importantly, Alan Pulido. The Mexico #9 is a dangerous striker, and has already shown that by scoring two goals in his opening two games for the club. With Felipe Gutierrez and Johnny Russell also sure to score goals, SKC seem to be in a good spot. On top of this, offseason acquisition Gadi Kinda has added two goals an assist in his first 164 minutes of play with the club. If the club can return to typical SKC fashion by being defensively sound, they’ll be a real force in this tournament.

Real Salt Lake: All four teams could advance, but I give Real Salt Lake an edge over the other three. RSL shocked many and finished in third place in the Western Conference last season, and while I don’t think they’re better than all but two teams in the conference in reality, it can’t be ignored. A repurposed Damir Kreilach has shown that he loves to perform in big games since his arrival. On top of that, Albert Rusnak is a great player who has guaranteed 15+ direct goal contributions since joining the club in 2017. Guaranteed numbers, plus performers who like to turn up in big occasions is always going to benefit a team in a World-Cup styled tournament.

Group C

Toronto FC, New England Revolution, Montreal Impact, D.C. United.

Who Will Advance?

Toronto FC: Last year’s MLS Cup finalists seem a safe pick to advance to the knockout stages of this tournament. However, the rest of this group is hard to predict, with all three playing at a similar level. Jozy Altidore, when healthy, is one of the players you dread playing in MLS more than any other. However, Alejandro Pozuelo is even more frustrating. Last year, Toronto brought in the Spaniard #10, and his impact was felt immediately, as he scored two and added an assist in NYCFC’s first loss of the season. He finished the season with 12 goals and 12 assists and was the key in getting Toronto to MLS Cup yet again. Greg Vanney has been the club’s manager since 2014, and knows his players better than most, which gives him a real advantage in this tournament. Don’t be surprised if these guys make a deep run in the tournament.

New England Revolution: This is a club that surprised people last season, and will likely do the same this year. Squeezing into the playoffs was a great accomplishment, and while squeezing out of this group may not hold the same value, it will still show people that the club means business. Bruce Arena, an undeniable veteran in American soccer, did a great job with the club. Carles Gil simply does not get the respect he deserves despite putting up 10 goals and 14 assists in his first MLS season in 2019. Gustavo Bou, who played just 14 games in his first MLS campaign last year, added 9 goals, and was huge in helping the Revs secure the aforementioned playoff spot. I called the Philadelphia Union a sneaky good club, but based on last season’s finish many people have high hopes for them. The Revolution on the other hand are a sneakier good club.

Group D

Seattle Sounders, FC Dallas, Vancouver Whitecaps, San Jose Earthquakes.

Who Will Advance?

Seattle Sounders: This seems like one of the easiest choices that’ll have to be made throughout this article. This group is not particularly strong outside of Seattle. Last year, Seattle finished second only to a record-breaking LAFC season in the Western Conference and then comfortably handled Toronto FC in the MLS Cup. Jordan Morris is in the best form of his life after some people began to lose hope, and they still have Nicolas Lodeiro and Raul Ruidiaz, and #9 and #10 that compete with the previously mentioned best combination in Major League Soccer.

San Jose Earthquakes: The second-placed team in this group is a little harder to pick. Between the three teams, I think San Jose has the best chance of advancing, but FC Dallas would surprise nobody. Matias Almeyda is one of the biggest names on the complete list of MLS managers. He didn’t get to show the league what he is capable of last season entirely, but he did show glimpses. Much the opposite to their manager, San Jose still doesn’t have a player that stands out as amongst the best in the league, but does feature a lot of fun talent. Expect San Jose to not only advance, but have some fun while doing it.

Group E

Atlanta United, FC Cincinnati, New York Red Bulls, Columbus Crew SC.

Who Will Advance?

Atlanta United: This group seems the easiest to predict as a whole. 2018 MLS Cup Champions, Atlanta United, have one of the silliest trios in MLS history on their roster. Josef Martinez, who will miss the tournament thanks to an injury suffered earlier this year, Pity Martinez, 2018 South American Player of the Year, and Ezequiel Barco, the young Argentine linked with the biggest clubs in Europe. Add Jurgen Damm to this, thanks to an announcement made earlier this month, and the club feels impossible to defend. Admittedly, the club has lost some key players in the past year, but it shouldn’t stop them from advancing out of this group.

New York Red Bulls: New Jersey’s own, the New York Red Bulls, are my pick to advance with Atlanta United. FC Cincinnati don’t stand a chance, and Columbus Crew had a rough year in 2019. I do believe the latter has the ability to shock some people, but my money would be on the Red Bulls. This pick doesn’t come down to me being impressed with the team last season, or even impressed with business they did in the offseason, it simply comes down to Atlanta United and the Red Bulls being thrown into a group of minnows.

Group F

LAFC, LA Galaxy, Houston Dynamo, Portland Timbers.

Who Will Advance?

LAFC: No shock here. Despite no MLS Cup last season, a Carlos Vela led LAFC broke numerous records. Vela somehow improved on his debut campaign by scoring 34 goals, and adding 15 assists in 31 games last season. Those numbers are absurd. On top of that, highly rated Diego Rossi will likely have a more productive future ahead of him, which could start this week, and Brian Rodriguez has shown glimpses that he’ll be an exciting contributor as well. Off the bench, MLS veteran Bradley Wright-Phillips gives the club another option to score. An improved goalkeeper in Kenneth Vermeer, as well as retaining Eduard Atuesta makes LAFC favorites to win the entire competition.

LA Galaxy: The second-placed team was a toss-up between LAFC’s history-loving neighbors, and the Portland Timbers. I opted for the neighbors. While gaps definitely remain in the XI that will prevent them from being full-on challengers to win the entire cup, the Galaxy are building a good team, and should have their best year in recent memory. Jonathan dos Santos, is a highly-loved but maybe even under appreciated player in Major League Soccer. However, his compatriot and new teammate Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, is anything other than under appreciated. As soon as he was signed, comparisons were made with Vela, another compatriot in Los Angeles. While I think it’s bizarre that people are expecting Vela-level output, Chicharito is definitely an exciting addition who will not only score goals, but provide help in other areas of the field. He won’t score as many as Zlatan (or be as degrading to his teammates), but he remains a welcome addition.

On top of that, Cristian Pavon may still be the club’s star player in terms of production. The 2018 World Cup veteran was better in the first two games played this season, than he was in almost any other game in 2019. That is saying something considering he added eight assists in his 11 appearances last season. With Zlatan gone, Pavon looks freed, and him and Chicharito could form a partnership feared across the league.

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