MLS is Back Group Stage Superlatives

While the majority of the sports world slowly wakes up from its Covid hibernation, Major League Soccer is in full swing. The MLSisBack Tournament group stage finished on Friday. Now, it’s on to the knockout rounds.

As is everything in 2020, the tournament has been unpredictable. After a four month layoff, several of the favorites never reached their best form, and a few upstart teams have punched above their weight to advance out of the group stage.

The knockout stage bracket.

The Round of 16 will kick off tomorrow (Saturday), with typical World Cup-style single elimination matches. Draws won’t happen anymore. If a match is tied at the end of regulation, they’ll play two 15-minute periods. If it’s still tied, it’s on to penalty kicks to find a winner.

With Nashville not participating in the tournament, who should you watch?

Best Overall Team

Columbus Crew have put on a masterclass in competent, tactically sound play. The Crew were a juggernaut in their first match, running rampant over FC Cincinnati in a 4-0 win. They rounded out their group stage with wins over New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United, playing a possession-based style that lends itself to attack and creates plenty of chances for striker Gyasi Zardes. They’re also an elite defensive unit. The Crew were the only side to not allow a goal in the group stage.

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Darlington Nagbe | Devin L’Amoreaux/MLS

At the heart of the Crew’s success is Darlington Nagbe. The 30-year-old midfielder is one of the best rhythm midfielders in the league, dictating the pace of games and running the show from a deep-lying position. He’s also one of the most fun players to watch in MLS, able to receive the ball in a pack of defenders and turn into space.

The Crew are a deep, talented and exciting team who seem to be firing on all cylinders at the right time. They should go far.

Biggest Surprise

Orlando City haven’t had a ton of success since joining Major League Soccer. They’ve never qualified for the playoffs and have endured a carousel of couches, currently on their sixth coach in six seasons. New boss Óscar Pareja seems to have turned things around, with the Lions unexpectedly winning Group A.

Ruan (left) and Tesho Akindele (right) | Devin L’Amoreaux/MLS

Under Pareja, Orlando are playing an exciting brand of soccer, with Chris Mueller turning into one of the more productive wingers in the league. Not many picked them to make a run before the tournament, but after a strong group stage, they look like the real deal.

Most Exciting Team

Los Angeles FC are the most entertaining side in the league. The Black and Gold set the league ablaze in 2019, shattering the points record while their captain Carlos Vela set a record with 34 goals and 15 assists.

LAFC have played some of the most entertaining matches in the tournament. Their attack is elite. Their defense is leaky. Through three group matches, they scored 11 goals and conceded 7, including a 6-2 route of rivals LA Galaxy. They are without defender Walker Zimmerman, traded to Nashville in the offseason. They’re also without the league’s best player, with Vela staying home to be with his pregnant wife.

Stepping up to fill the slack is Bradley Wright-Phillips. The 35 year old striker spent seven seasons with New York Red Bulls, where his 108 goals in 195 games established him as one of the elite finishers in the league.

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Bradley Wright-Phillips | Xavier Dussaq/MLS

LAFC signed him this offseason. For free.

BWP scored in each of their three group games, and looks like a key part of their hopes for silverware. With an attack that can’t stop scoring and a defense that can’t stop conceding, LAFC matches are not to be missed.

Most Boring Team

FC Cincinnati have made headlines for all the wrong reasons since entering the league in 2019. In their expansion year they were historically awful, winning just six matches and conceding an all-time record 75 goals. To start 2020, they fired manager Ron Jans for racist remarks in the locker room. After a lengthy search, they hired former Manchester United defender Jaap Stam to manage, and used a picture of the wrong guy in their official announcement.

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Frankie Amaya | Jared Martinez/MLS

Cincinnati managed to finish second in Group E. After being steamrolled by the Crew in their opener, they picked up wins over New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United by playing ultra conservative defense and capitalizing on a couple mistakes. It’s not been pretty to watch.

If watching a team pack 11 men behind the ball for 90 minutes is your thing, more power to you. Cincinnati won’t play expansive soccer anytime soon, and they probably don’t need to try right now. Against a talented Portland attack in the Round of 16, they’ll need to defend well and get lucky to advance.

Most Disappointing Team

On paper, Atlanta United have one of the most intriguing rosters in the league. If it’s not the best, it’s certainly one of the most expensive. With South American player of the year Pity Martínez pulling the strings and highly touted Ezequiel Barco’s boundless energy, this team should be good, right?

Not so fast. For starters, the team struggled to adapt to new manager Frank de Boer, who’s conservative approach was a stark contrast to Tata Martino’s high octane gameplan. They also lost key players in the offseason like Darlington Nagbe, Julian Gressel, Tito Villalba and Michael Parkhurst, and never really replaced them. To top it all off, they’re without Josef Martínez. The most lethal goal scorer in league history tore his ACL in their season opener in Nashville.

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Gonzalo “Pity” Martínez | Devin L’Amoreaux/MLS

Even with all these issues, Atlanta should have been one of the better sides in the tournament. They weren’t. The Five Stripes went winless in their three group matches, the only side in the league who didn’t score a goal. Three days after their elimination from the tournament, they fired de Boer. Not exactly a successful tournament.

Most Entertaining Player

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Alan Pulido | Devin L’Amoreaux/MLS

After years of waiting, Sporting Kansas City finally spent big money on a no. 9, signing forward Alan Pulido for a club-record $9.5 million. He’s been worth every penny so far in Orlando, scoring one and assisting three more. The Mexican international has shown a knack for flair, dropping into midfield to pick up the ball and make plays from deep, as well as making aggressive runs into the box to get on the end of service. Pulido is one to watch anytime he’s on the field.

Best Young Player

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Ayo Akinola | Devin L’Amoreaux/MLS

Ayo Akinola was virtually an unknown name heading into the tournament. The 20-year-old Detroit native had played sporadically for Toronto FC since coming through their academy, but has played a more prominent role with starter Jozy Altidore recovering from injury. Akinola got his chance and took it. The striker scored five goals in Toronto’s first two matches and has been a constant threat in the final third. After he burst onto the national stage, fans of the United States Men’s National Team will be hoping he chooses to represent the US.

With the Round of 16 set to start off tomorrow, teams are beginning to round into midseason form. After a four month break, the first few matches felt more like preseason games than competitive affairs. That shouldn’t be the case anymore, as players are getting fit and teams are building chemistry on the field. MLS looks set for an exciting finish to the tournament.

The Round of 16 kicks off on Friday, July 25 at 7:00PM central as Orlando City take on Montreal Impact. The match will be broadcast on ESPN2.

Comments

  1. Hey Ben, what did you think about Atlanta firing Frank De Boer? I have no vested interest in the club or manager, but thought it seemed like hasty decision making.

    1. Hey Robert, to be honest, it seemed like a long time coming. De Boer was very much the opposite of Tata Martino, their previous manager. Martino used a very high-octane, counterattacking, exciting style of play, and gave the players a lot more freedom on the field. FDB was much more restrictive and used a much more defensive, cautious style. It had been a complaint that followed him around at his previous jobs, and largely contributed to his firing from both Inter Milan and Crystal Palace.

      Last summer, several Atlanta players openly complained about the style of play and it seemed like they were close to revolting. Felipe Cardenas of the Athletic reported after the firing that top players would leave practice early over disputes. FDB changed his style a bit last season, and that helped some. It also helped that Josef Martinez scored in 15 straight matches down the stretch to paper over some of the cracks.

      For whatever reason, FDB went back to being ultra conservative this season and never got the best out of Atlanta’s best and most expensive players. A lot of people (me included) thought he was a bad fit from the start, and that seems validated by his firing. I wouldn’t be shocked if Atlanta hire more attack minded manager out of South America to better mesh with their roster and bring back their original style of play that contributed to their success when they first started in MLS.

        1. Yeah, some of them definitely are. Some, like Atlanta or LA Galaxy, failed miserably. We’re also seeing more defensive teams like Cincinnati or Minnesota do well. There’s really no one way to win, which is one of the reasons I love the sport so much.

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