Previewing the MLS is Back Tournament: Group A

USATSI_12979377_168382939_lowres

As we countdown the days to the start of the MLS is Back Tournament, Philly Sports Network will preview each of the six groups. Here is a preview of Group A.

Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Matches

Each team will play three others in the group to see who makes it out of Group A to the knockout rounds. The top three teams with the most points form their three matches will automatically make it to the knockout rounds. The team that finishes in fourth-place has a shot to make it as well if they are one of the top three third-place teams in the whole field of the tournament. Now let’s look at the four teams in Group A.

Chicago Fire SC

Chicago is scheduled to start the group stage against Nashville SC, then take on Inter Miami, and complete their group stage with NYCFC. The Fire ended their 2019 season three points out of a playoff spot. Had they had one more win they would have made the playoffs over New England thanks to their better goal difference. Unfortunately, they couldn’t get the win. Coming into the 2020 season, and this tournament they are looking to prove that they can make the jump up to have a chance to contend.

Three Things to Watch

  1. Who will lead the line?

    Last season, Chicago Traded for veteran striker CJ Sapong. He played most of the season as a starter. In the limited 2020 season, Chicago signed DP forward Robert Beric who started the first two matches. So, who will lead the line for Chicago in the MLS is Back Tournament? Will it be the experienced MLS player Sapong or the newcomer the club invested in, in Beric? Could it be a combination?
  2. A congested midfield

    Chicago started the 2020 season playing a 4-1-4-1 formation. This allowed them to contest the midfield, and have creative players on the ball in transition moments. I’d assume that head coach Raphaël Wicky will keep his system in place for the MLS is Back Tournament. This could make Chicago hard to break down in the middle of the field, but those players in the midfield will need to decide when to spring an attack and stay grounded to help their defense
  3. Can their defense impress?

    A question mark over the last few seasons has been the Fire’s defense. In 2019 they turned the tide. They let in 47 goals which is a better record than four teams that made the playoffs over them. In the MLS is Back Tournament the team that can limit the other team’s attacks will likely have success; if Chicago’s defense can impress, then they have a good chance to make it out of this difficult group.

Inter Miami CF

Inter Miami takes on Orlando in the first match of the MLS is Back Tournament, plays their second match against Chicago, and ends with Philadelphia. Miami is one of two expansions teams that came into MLS in the 2020 season. They only played two matches and did not look all put together. Could this long layoff and tournament format help them find their identity?

Three Things to Watch

  1. Can Pizarro be the star Miami needs him to be?

    Rodolfo Pizarro is the star of Inter Miami. In the brief two games that Miami played you could see his skill. He will need to turn it on after this long break to help Miami get out of this group. Luckily he only needs one chance to put one away. If he does this in the group stage he could show his stardom and move Inter Miami along!
  2. Can Wil Trapp be able to lead this team in this tournament?

    Inter Miami made waves before the start of the 2020 season acquiring ex-Columbus Crew Captain Wil Trapp. His task is now to lead this expansion team from the midfield to help set the pace and put out fires. Can he do this? He showed his worth with Columbus, now he’ll have to hold this new team together.
  3. MLS veterans in defense and in goal

    MLS veteran’s Ben Sweat, Alvas Powell, Román Torres and Luis Robles look to lock down their competition. Their experience could just do this in a tournament setting. Will they be able to limit the chance and frustrate the opposition? If they can, then they may just be able to make a splash in now that MLS is back.

Nashville SC

Nashville SC starts with a match against Chicago, then take on Inter Miami and end the tournament playing Orlando. Nashville is the other new-coming expansion side. They started the 2020 season in the western conference, but once the shutdown and tournament format came about MLS decided to flip them to the eastern conference. This team does have some COVID concerns, that have postponed their matches. Should they be allowed to play, what could we see from Nashville SC?

Three Things to Watch

  1. Can their attackers take on the underdog mentality?

    All of the attackers that Nashville has are MLS veterans that have had issues living up to expectations. Dominique Badji and David Accam have had their moments of brilliance in MLS, but also blunders. If they want to help Nashville do well in this tournament and whenever the regular season resumes, they will need to take on that underdog mentality to find that extra layer of confidence. If they do this now, Nashville will be competitive.
  2. Could a center back be their leading scorer?

    Speaking of those who are supposed to be goal scorers, could we see Nashville’s attack lead by a center back? Walker Zimmerman is lethal on set pieces and has looked like the best attacker for Nashville in their limited games. This skill is dangerous in a tournament setting. Could he be the leading scorer for Nashville and help them out on offense as well as on defense?
  3. Will their MLS vets lead this team to glory?

    This squad has many MLS veterans. Dax McCarty is their leader. He and the rest of their vets want to make some noise on this new team. If they can lead and scratch and claw their way past the teams they play in group A, we could see Nashville make a splash. Only time will tell if they can do this let alone play at all in this tournament with the confined COVID cases they have.

NYCFC

NYCFC begin their tournament against Philadelphia, then play Orlando and finish the tournament against Chicago. New York City won the eastern conference last season on 64 points. They got the bye week to the second round of the playoffs but did not make it past their first playoff game against eventual MLS Cup runners up Toronto FC. This season, they welcomed a new head coach Ronny Deila but carried over almost all of their 2019 squad. They look poised to make a splash in 2020, even if it is not how they expected to.

Three Things to Watch

  1. Can this unchanged roster play well in a tournament?

    NYCFC was the best team in the east last season. They went on a long unbeaten run and were devastating to their opposition, especially at home. Now in this tournament, this team that is cohesive will need to face an meet the challenge this competition brings. The skill in every position on the field has this team poised to make a run in this group and competition as a whole.
  2. Will Deila have this team raring to go?

    New head coach Ronny Deila is definitely a more firey coach than ex-coach Dome Torrent. Deila has inherited a very good and competitive team. Will, his approach be one that gels with the team or will it be conflicting? With the extra time to get to know his team, there is likely an understanding between the coach and players on how to get the best results.
  3. Sean Johnson will be a difference-maker in goal

    Goalkeeper Sean Johnson has had his ups and downs in his career but in this NYCFC squad, he looks to have found a stable footing. He can shine in this squad, and this tournament is the place that will show just how much of a difference-maker he can be. If he is this different-maker, then there is no reason NYCFC cannot win this tournament.

Orlando City SC

Orlando plays against Miami, then take on NYCFC and finish against Nashville. The Lions finished second from the bottom in 2019 and did not instill any confidence. In 2020 they brought in a new coach Oscar Pareja to help right their wrongs. Orlando has never made the playoffs in their six years in MLS. Could this tournament, which is being played in their back yard, be their first championship win?

Three Things to Watch

  1. Where will Nani play?

    The Portuguese star Nani is definitely the leader of Orlando City. But the question is where he will play for this squad. In a 4-2-3-1 formation, Nani could play as the striker, on the wing, or as the attacking playmaker. It is likely that if Orlando plays this system that Nani can do his best work in that number 10 playmaking role. With players like Mueller on the wing and Dwyer up top, Nani should be able to sit in the 10-role and be devastating on the attack.
  2. Can Dom Dwyer lead their line?

    Dom Dwyer is a great striker, but his injury concerns have plagued him in years past. He is healthy and could be the difference-maker Orlando needs. his ability to make the correct darting runs can make him a great threat. With fast wingers around him and Nani providing behind him. Dwyer can lead the line and bag goals too.
  3. Will Orlando overcome their history?

    Orlando has had a poor history of coming up short of expectations. Now in this odd year, they are considered the host as the games are being played in Florida. While there will be no home-field advantage or fans attending, Orlando will be feeling the pressure. Will they be able to pull off winning in this competition and show they can get our of mediocrity, or will they play as they have in the past?

Philadelphia Union

Philadelphia plays NYCFC, Nashville and ends their group stage against Miami. The Union met their goals in 2019 of being in the top four of the east. They finished third and won their first-ever playoff match. In 2020, they looked to build off it and compete for the top of the east. A fiery match against LAFC saw Philly as the better team, flustering Bob Bradley and his bunch. Could Philly make a run to a cup in the MLS is Back Tournament?

Three Things to Watch

  1. Health and depth key for Philly

    Philly has been a good team for the past few seasons, but the only thing holding them back had been the depth in their team and the health of their difference makers. This plaqued them at the end of the 2018 and the 2019 seasons moving into the playoffs, cutting their run to glory short. Now in the MLS is Back Tournament this will be something to keep an eye on can they stay healthy and rely on the newfound depth this team has?
  2. Sergio Santos is ready to breakout

    Speedy and skillfully striker Sergio Santos took some time to acclimate himself to MLS last season, but he had a great start to his 2020 season banging in a great goal in the last MLS match before the shutdown. Now he is poised to lead the Union in goals in this tournament. He has the skill set to be a top-notch striker in this setting. Can he breakout and help move Philly forward?
  3. Homegrowns that are ready to lead

    The Union has developed homegrown players into starters and now they look poised to become leaders on the field. The likes of Mark McKenzie and Brenden Aaronson will look to showcase this from the start of the tournament. Can they and the other homegrown players show their quality while leading by example to help the Union make a run in a tournament competition like the club has gone on in previous years?

Group A is difficult to navigate, but the drama that there will be in each match will add to the excitement this tournament brings! Group A kicks off On July 8th with Orlando taking on Miami for the first time ever!

To learn more about the MLS is Back Tournament, check out our in-depth article on the tournament:

Be sure to come back to Philly Sports Network for more Philadelphia Union, Union II, and other soccer content!

Follow our Union team on Twitter:

Tim Lovenguth | Jeff Green | Matt McClain
El Parcero Philly | Liam Jenkins | Matt Nissenfeld

Peace out Union fans!

Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

More from our Sister Sites