Five things we’ve learned since ‘MLS is Back’ kicked off

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Editorial — The 2020 MLS season returned in a blaze of glory when Orlando City SC beat Inter Miami courtesy of a 97th minute Nani strike on July 9. There has been action on a daily basis ever since, and the MLS is Back groups are starting to take shape. These are five key things we have learned since the special tournament began.

The Tournament is Wide Open

Most MLS fans would have agreed that the strongest teams heading into the tournament were LAFC, Toronto FC and Atlanta United, with the Seattle Sounders and New York Red Bulls also looking dangerous. However, all five of those teams have struggled in the opening stages. LAFC needed a second-half comeback to earn a 3-3 draw with an unheralded Houston Dynamo side in its opener. Toronto threw away a two-goal lead against D.C. United, despite its opponent having Junior Moreno sent off before the break.

Atlanta United looked toothless up front in its opener with New York Red Bulls. The Red Bulls won the game 1-0, but looked sluggish throughout, and neither team will strike fear into the hearts of their rivals. Seattle was held to a 0-0 draw with San Jose in its opener, and then slumped to a 2-1 defeat at the hands of the Chicago Fire, leaving it with just one point from two games. Meanwhile, many of the less vaunted teams have made a blistering start to proceedings, suggesting that this tournament is wide open.

Philadelphia Looks Like the Real Deal

The Philadelphia Union’s young stars should be full of confidence after winning their opening two games. They came up against a strong NYCFC team in their opener and they were content to let their opponents dominate possession, but they broke with menace and purpose throughout proceedings. Alejandro Bedoya’s second-half strike handed Philadelphia a slender lead, and it defended diligently until victory was wrapped up. The Union looked sharp in their 2-1 victory over Inter Miami too, with Kai Wagner and Kacper Przybylko both on target.

Last year, Philadelphia had the fifth best regular season record in the league. It battled to victory over New York Red Bulls in the playoffs, but ultimately it was no match for Atlanta United in the conference semi-finals. Yet the young squad is now a year older, and key players such as Mark McKenzie, Brenden Aaronson and Matt Freese look to have matured. Bedoya provides strong leadership for this team, and the Union should feel confident in their chances of going deep into the MLS is Back Tournament.

Josef Martinez is a Huge Loss for Atlanta United

Atlanta United has been the most consistent team in MLS for the past couple of years. It blazed a trail of destruction across the league in 2018, winning the MLS Cup with consummate ease. Key playmaker Miguel Almiron secured a lucrative move to the EPL and coach Tata Martinez left the expansion franchise to take over as manager of the Mexican national team. However, star striker Josef Martinez stuck around. The Venezuelan forward banged in an astonishing 27 goals in 29 games last year, as Atlanta had the second best record in the league and reached the conference finals, where it narrowly lost to Toronto.

Atlanta built the team around Martinez, and fans pinned their hopes of glory in 2020 on his shoulders. However, the former MLS Cup MVP suffered a dreaded ACL tear in early March and he will miss the MLS is Back tournament. That is a major blow for the team, which looked woefully bereft of a focal point in attack during its 1-0 defeat to New York Red Bulls. Frank de Boer has opted for a 3-4-3 formation, with Pity Martinez looking ineffective alongside newcomer Matheus Rossetto and Manuel Castro. A lack of firepower could kill off Atlanta’s chances of success.

Defensive Shortcomings Could Prove LAFC’s Undoing

LAFC had the best defensive record in the league last year, with 37 goals conceded in 34 regular season games, but it all fell apart in the playoffs. It prevailed in a 5-3 thriller against local rival LA Galaxy, with Carlos Vela, Adama Diomande and Diego Rossi on fire, but it then suffered a 3-1 defeat to Seattle in the conference finals. It picked up a clean sheet on the opening day of the 2020 season, but the defense was a mess once again in the subsequent 3-3 draw with Philadelphia Union. The season was abandoned and Bob Bradley had several months to figure out how to improve the defense, but the early signs are far from positive.

LAFC found itself a goal down after just nine minutes in its MLS is Back opener after slack defending allowed Memo Rodriguez to fire in at the near post. Bradley Wright-Phillips turned in an equalizer, but woeful marking allowed Rodriguez to score his second of the evening. Albert Elis found himself unmarked from a free-kick to make it 3-1 on the stroke of half-time. Houston then parked the bus after the break, and goals from Rossi and Brian Rodriguez earned LAFC a share of the spoils. Anyone looking at the latest soccer betting markets will see that LAFC remains among the favorites to win the tournament, but Bradley really needs to tighten that defense.

Columbus Looks Like an Intriguing Dark Horse

Columbus Crew began the tournament by thumping FC Cincinnati, 4-0. It was the most dominant display we have seen from any team so far, as Jaap Stam’s men were run ragged. Columbus enjoyed 62% of the possession, and the scoreline could have been heavier if they had not eased up a little in the second half. Gyasi Zardes proved what a brilliant predator he is with goals either side of half-time, while strikes from Luvas Zelarayan and Youness Mokhtar completed the rout.

Columbus is a dynamic, offensive team, and its style of play could serve it well in this tournament. It looked extremely dangerous in wide areas against Cincinnati, and Zelarayan looks like a great replacement for Federico Higuain in the playmaker role. Sterner challenges await the Crew, but they look perfectly capable of defying the odds and enjoying a successful tournament.