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 E.
Group E showcases four eastern conference teams, two of which made the playoffs in 2019 and the other two are from Ohio! Atlanta United and New York Red Bulls have been two of the better clubs in MLS over the last few seasons; the Columbus Crew has been up and down, and FC Cincinnati had an abysmal year in 2019. Throwing all of these groups together will make for some interesting matchups!
Each team will play the other three to see who makes it out of Group E to make it to the knockout rounds. The top two teams with the most points form the three matches will automatically make it to the knockout rounds. The team that finishes in third-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.
The matches are set, now is the time to take a closer look at the four teams in Group E.
Atlanta opens the tournament taking on their rivals New York Red Bulls, then face FC Cincinnati, and finish with Columbus Crew SC. Atlanta is likely to be the favorites in the group. Following another deep playoff run in 2019, they started the 2020 season with two wins from two matches. Their skill is evident, but what can we expect from them in this tournament?
Three Things to Watch
- No Josef Martinez
One of, if not the best, striker in MLS history Josef Martinez tore his ACL in the season opener. While he and the rest of MLS has now had fourth months off, Josef will not be with Atlanta for the MLS is back Tournament
- Structure and execution
Even without Josef Martinez, Atlanta is still a very dangerous team thanks to its structure and execution. While Atlanta has had some players leave the club that were staples in their 2018 MLS Cup-winning team. This team still has the ability to break teams down with and without the ball. their speed in the attack is the thing to watch here!
- Stars that could shine
Without Josef, Atlanta will need to lean on Ezequiel Barco, Gonzalo (Pitty) Martinez, and Emerson Hyndman. Both Barco and Hyndman scored two goals in two matches at the start of 2020 and Pity Martinez was the playmaker setting them up. If these three get off to a good start, they could wreak havoc.
Columbus Crew SC
Crew SC takes on FC Cincinnati for a Hell is Real Derby to open the tournament, they then face New York Red Bulls and conclude with Atlanta United. The Columbus Crew had an uncharacteristic 2019 season. They finished 10th in the east. This club is used to being in playoff contention, and will be looking to get things back on the right path in the MLS is Back Tournament.
Three Things to Watch
- A strong team to put 2019 behind them
Columbus may have had a down year in 2019, but they overhauled their squad and look like contenders for 2020. The additions of Lucas Zelarayan and Darlington Nagbe will help bolster the attacking quality on the team. If this team can gel in the group stage they could make a run in this tournament.
- Can Zardes be a top goal scorer?
Gyasi Zardes is an interesting player. He has had success with LA Galaxy, and the frontman for the Crew over the last few seasons. He has shown that when he turns it on, he is a great goal scorer. Can he do this in this tournament? With playmakers behind him, he may just have a shot to compete for the golden boot.
- Can they take the top spot?
Before the 2020 season started, many were picking Crew SC as the darkhorse to win MLS Cup. Their overhaul has inspired confidence but only took two points from two matches to start in 2020. With that, they could be poised to win the group, as they have a good record against their fellow Group E teams!
FC Cincinnati opens the tournament with their cross-state rivals Columbus, then face Atlanta, and complete their group stage against New York Red Bulls. Cincy was far and away from the worst team in 2019. In their second season, they have the chance to show their worth in this different competition.
Three Things to Watch
- Defense wins championships
FC Cincinnati had the worst defensive record of any MLS team in 2019; a negative 44 goal differential. This prompted them to sign centerback Maikel van der Werff before the start of the 2020 season. Will his addition be enough to help a struggling defense in this tournament. Maybe, but the jury is still out on this.
- Another new Head Coach
Before the season start, FC Cincinnati fired their head coach Ron Jans for racist comments. It took them a while to find a replacement, and in May they found the man to lead their team. Jaap Stam is now in charge of FC Cincinnati, and he will look to get the most out of his players. Will he be able to have an impact on this team in his first matches as a manager?
- It Can’t get any worse, can it?
FC Cincinnati is starting from the bottom. It likely can’t get any worse, and with Jurgen Locadia leading the line, Cincinnati may just shock everyone and make it out of the group.
New York Red Bulls
New York starts their tournament with foes Atlanta United, then face Columbus Crew SC and end their group stage with FC Cincinnati. In 2019, New York Red Bulls saw their grip on the eastern conference slip as they finished in 6th place and exited the playoffs in the first round. Their longstanding veterans are mostly gone, so how will this team look?
Three Things to Watch
- High pressing style
The New York Red Bulls have a great high pressing style of play. This used to be their calling card, as the only MLS team to do this to perfection. They fell off last season. Could it team have found a way past them, or could it be the change in players? Either way, if the Red Bulls can execute this style of play. They could win their group.
- Who is scoring the goals?
The Red Bulls no longer have Bradley Wright-Phillips. Kaku and Daniel Royer have to step up to score. They also have their new young guns coming through their academy. Will, they’ve enough to get the goals needed?
- Can they reclaim a top spot?
New York had a fast and hard fall from the top of the east in 2019. This will eat at coach Chris Armas. He’ll have his team raring to go and prove that they are still a top team in MLS.
Group E should have plenty of fireworks. There could be one or two dark horses coming form this group, don’t miss these matches!
To learn more about the MLS is Back Tournament, check out our in-depth article on the tournament:
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Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports