The MLS is Back tournament is still a go… for now.
With news of FC Dallas being forced to withdraw due to accumulating positive COVID test results, MLS fans are right to worry if this tournament has the legs to continue on as advertised. For now, it does according to MLS Commissioner Don Garber.
The tournament will begin Wednesday night at 8 p.m. Eastern time with an in-state rivalry kicking off the action. Orlando City will play Inter Miami to begin Group A play.
The next day, almost 12 hours later, Philadelphia Union Head Coach Jim Curtin and the boys in blue will take the field against fellow Eastern Conference rival NYCFC in the first 9 a.m. clash of the tournament.
Here are five things to watch as Philadelphia begin group play.
1. Early kick-off
This is the obvious one. A 9:00 a.m. kickoff. Most of us are sluggishly chugging our morning coffee while eating breakfast. Or maybe we’re only just starting our workdays.
For Philadelphia and NYCFC, they’ll need to be game-ready first thing in the AM.
How will a 9 a.m. kickoff affect things? And why so early?
In hopes of avoiding the intensity of the summer heat in Florida, MLS has slated games at 9 a.m, 8 p.m., and 10:30 p.m. But both will be “new experiences” and certainly “unique” according to Curtin.
“I can safely say I’ve never played at either time in a professional soccer match,” said Curtin two weeks ago when the schedule was officially released. “There’s no coach’s manual. There’s no blueprint. There’s no real way to get an advantage. We’re doing our best in terms of preparation knowing now that it will be a 9:00 am kickoff that first game.”
Some changes to training were made in hopes of getting players acclimated to the morning temperature and intensity levels needed for a match bright and early.
“We will have guys training pretty early in the morning so we will be acclimated hopefully to the heat and that time of kickoff,” said Curtin. “Is it going to be unique to have your pre-game meal around 6 a.m.? Absolutely, I don’t think many players have done that before, but these are different times,” said Curtin.
While the early a.m. kickoff may be seen as an enormous hurdle to some, Curtin has been actively trying to highlight the positives as opposed to the negatives in hopes of creating a rock-solid team mentally focused on working hard and salvaging something from this tournament.
“It’s a change that we’ll embrace and we’ll make the most of,” said Curtin. “We’re all kind of experimenting with things.”
2. NYCFC is a giant question mark
What can we expect from NYCFC? Are they to be feared? Are they potentially over-ratted? What will they make of this little tournament in Orlando?
There is no right answer. A lot of the personnel on the pitch is the same, but a new coach causes more questions.
Across the league, many analysts are struggling when it comes to predicting NYCFC’s fate. They have the talent, there’s no questioning that. But they failed to score a goal in their first two MLS matches and with a new coach, again, in Ronny Deila at the helm, NYCFC may still experience some hiccups in Orlando.
Tactically under Deila, not much should change. Deila has several years of experience in Europe having coached most recently at Valerenga where he failed to find success in three years in charge.
But his experience overseas should aid him with NYCFC.
And with players like Heber and Maxi Moralez to help anchor perhaps the most explosive offense in the Eastern Conference, Deila should not struggle – on paper at least.
The lack of a win through two MLS games in early March is concerning. The absence of goals during those two matches is more alarming.
But a team packed with so much offensive talent won’t sputter forever. They’ll click soon. Philadelphia will just hope they can do enough defensively to prevent it.
3. Substitutions – when, who, and how many to make?
An added strategical element was added to the tournament format with the goal of alleviating playing demands on players. Now, coaches will have a maximum of five substitutions instead of the normal three.
And if there’s one thing that both Philadelphia and NYCFC have, it’s quality depth throughout their rosters.
Curtin has Ilsinho, the supersub, aka the cheat code. In 2019, Ilsinho became an unsung hero with eye-popping ball skills and an incredibly useful knack of creating or scoring late-game goals. With him on the pitch in 2019, Philadelphia was +23 and -15 without him. Those are insane splits productive.
In addition to Ilsinho, Curtin has a steady stable of midfielders and forwards to pull from too.
For NYCFC and Deila, there are useful options on their bench too. In the first two matches, Deila decided to bring on Valentin Castellanos after the 70th-minute mark. Expect Castellanos to thrive in that role in Orlando. As if it wasn’t enough for Philadelphia’s back-line to handle Heber, Morales, and wingers like Alexandru Mitrita and Jesus Medina, they could be asked to handle Castellanos after an hour of dealing with those speedsters.
4. Game management
According to Union Sporting Director Ernst Tanner, dictating when and how to press the pedal to the metal throughout these matches will be key.
According to the the Philadelphia Inquirer, Tanner said “It is not necessary that we always need to play in our full-power mode. Certainly, we have that preferred style of play, and in some phases of the game we will do it.”
Basically, Curtin and his technical staff will try to pinpoint moments in the match in which to deploy their high-press style. In normal circumstances, with players up to full game speed week in and week out, Philadelphia would demand a heavy workload from their forwards and midfielders, in hopes of pressing the opposition into turnovers. The end-goal being: control the match.
But in Orlando, with high temperatures and humidity levels coupled with early AM and late night kick-offs, teams like Philadelphia will need to adjust.
NYCFC has added extra emphasis on counter-pressing according to Curtin. Deciding when and how his team will press will likely determine the outcome of the match.
Do you throw numbers forward at times? Do you keep midfielders closer back to midfield to prevent transition moments, which NYCFC thrives on? When do you press the issue? When do you remain conservative?
5. Sergio Santos or Kacper Przybylko up top for Philadelphia? Or both?
Much of the starting XI for Philadelphia is set in stone. The only question marks remain at the center back position as Mark McKenzie, Jack Elliott, Jakob Glesnes, and Aurelien Colin battle it out for those two spots.
At midfield, we can expect to see captain Alejandro Bedoya line up alongside Jamiro Monteiro, Brenden Aaronson, and/or Jose ‘El Brujo’ Martinez.
But up top, Curtin can experiment a bit. In week 1 at Dallas, He decided to go with the 4-4-2 diamond formation with Santos and Pryzbylko paired up top. Ultimately it didn’t work out but that may have been due to a lack of chemistry in the midfield more than a lack of partnership between the two strikers.
Out west at LAFC, Curtin rolled Santos and Przybylko out together again but this time with some minor changes both tactically and personnel wise in the midfield.
He shifted to more of a 4-3-1-2 formation with Martinez at the 8 flanked by Monteiro and Bedoya. The extra space along the outer edges of the midfield helped Philadelphia find more success and with it 3-goals, two of which will remain top goals of 2020.
In the first match of group play, I think it’s safe to assume Santos and Przybylko will start together up top. And with that pairing, Philadelphia will hope to see success.
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