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MLS is Back!

This time it’s in a bubble

May 12, 2018 - Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States - The match day ball prior to the Minnesota United vs San Jose Earthquakes match at TCF Bank Stadium
Photo by Seth Steffenhagen/Steffenhagen Photography

So MLS is Back, and this time with the most unimaginative name yet “MLS is Back Tournament.”

I’ve never cared about what things are titled so let’s skip all that and dive straight into what this means for people involved in the clubs. Everyone will talk about “picking up where we left off” or “the start of a new season,” both of these are correct. Two competitive games is nothing when it comes to analyzing a team, and those two games were nothing but a tease for Loons fans. These highly competitive people have been wanting nothing more then to get back to what they do for a career, trying to win trophies. Sure they’ve had a 4 month break but that’s a normal offseason between competitive games, obviously nobody needs to explain that this is different.

The most challenging part if off the field and protecting the health of all people involved. The security of “the bubble” ins imperative, but there is no realistic way someone won’t test positive. Especially considering how Florida has become a hot spot lately. That being said they will have access to critical healthcare and treatment and will be a treated as a priority if they come in contact with the virus. This may not be morally or ethically right but it is a reality. This goes for all of the leagues returning to play. The reality is becoming clear the virus will be present, there is no full proof safety in the bubble. Limiting the spread will be the most important for everyone involved. Once everyone is in the bubble it becomes about isolating. What players/staff will most likely be thinking is that they are not medical experts, they will trust the people who truly study this and is job is to keep them as safe as possible. The people involved in this will all try and focus on their role as well as practicing as safe health standards as possible. It will be difficult no matter what.

For a player “on the field”, they have been trying to stay ready to come back into a new preseason at any point, they were never going to have to come back and play a game right away, but they were getting constant online classroom sessions. This time away from the field was used to reflect and build upon each team’s philosophies on how they approach the game in different moments through film. You’d expect professionals to be bought in all the time, but that’s just not how humans work, some players have different things going on that take priority in moments (whether understandable or not). How will the coaching staff have kept the players motivated will matter because that time if used wisely can be an edge, and as we all know in a league like MLS every edge you can get over your opposition matters.

Now the players are back training, preparing for their next opponents. The groups have been decided and all of us MLS lovers can start to figure out what each group means and who should be coming out of each group. From a coach/players perspective it’s a little different because it is so difficult to truly prepare without knowing the when and where. This enables so much of a teams preparation for game specific details. Finally this was announced and teams can truly prepare. Peter Vermes in a recent conference call summed it up best:

As a coach I have mixed feelings about knockout competition, I’d prefer a league structure that rewards sustained excellence over the course of the season, however that isn’t happening just yet. It may not happen for a lot longer than we’d like. I think all competitors just want to get back to doing what they love, and will take any opportunity then can get right now.

Up first you have which looks to be the best game of the group, Sporting Kansas City. Both teams can realistically win the whole tournament and will be quietly saying so. MNUFC has tried to take a lot of what makes SKC successful in MLS and implement it so far, even down to the way the teams approach the game. Recognize the moments to counter otherwise look for sustained possession and let the inferior team make the mistake, both will look to make the game physical with the appropriate challenge. This will be a very intense game where both teams will need their best team on the field. To the Vermes quote earlier the date and time of this game will determine the entire approach from a tactical and player selection perspective for both teams. Both teams were missing a dominant striker last year and they both have them now in Pulido and Amarilla. Pulido has proven it in Liga MX and Amarilla is looking to build off a hot start. This tournament is the perfect opportunity for a player to drastically increase their value (in a transfer or a salary) right before the busier summer window, and they know it.

Colorado Rapids present a unique test coached by one of the more underrated coaches in the league in Robin Fraser. A team usually takes the image of their coach, and Fraser has finally started to get the team to start to look like he would want it. The roster should field a strong spine through the middle of the field with MLS veterans who have experienced knockout competition before. They will try to take advantage in every way possible especially on set pieces with Kei Kamara and some threats along the backline. As a defender Fraser has started to create a solid defensive system and a culture of winning. If you have a free hour and want to watch him present during a convention, the below video on “Dictating the Game without the Ball” is a must watch.

Real Salt Lake is the seeded team and they stack up similarly to MNUFC in terms of roster depth. They have a game changer 10, but lack a proven MLS goal scorer. Crazy things can happen in group play, especially with players trying to peak over a shortened schedule of games. They have also used the chance to get an extra defensive presence in that position in the past when using midfielder Damir Kreilach who has done stuff like this in the past.

Odds are RSL are only going to create goal scoring opportunities via crosses, pattern play, or a crazy goal out of nowhere, not via a striker taking over a game. However these types of knockout games can lead to anything and Minnesota United should not underestimate the seeded team in this group, even though the Loons should be favored here. RSL head coach Freddy Juarez has been talking about an opportunity to return to the CONCACAF Champions League (winner gets a berth) and that alone lets you know they will be ready to compete. The remaining teams in the group all won both games to start the season, two games is an insignificant sample size when it comes to a season, but for a knockout tournament or group play it can mean everything.

The group stage schedule is kind for MNUFC, with none of he early morning kick off times the team can set a rhythm of when they will be playing day in and day out. The chaos will come when it reaches the knockout stage, the only “easy” first knockout opponent would be if they win the group (in this scenario they would play a 3rd place team from a group outside of group A). Colorado Rapids present a unique test coached by one of the more underrated coaches in the league in Robin Fraser. A team usually takes the image of their coach, and Fraser has finally started to get the team to start to look like he would want it. The roster should field a strong spine through the middle of the field with MLS veterans who have experienced knockout competition before. They will try to take advantage in every way possible especially on set pieces with Kei Kamara and some threats along the backline. As a defender Fraser has started to create a solid defensive system and a culture of winning. If you have a free hour and want to watch him present during a convention, the below video on “Dictating the Game without the Ball” is a must watch.

If the Loons finish second they play the first place team from Group E which includes; Atlanta, Red Bulls, Columbus, and Cincinnati. If they get one of the 3rd place spots it would likely be the winner from Group A, which is the six team group and nearly impossible to pick from. So simply if MNUFC want to go far in this tournament they need to win the group.

As a fan, this is almost heaven for someone like me. If you enjoy the sport for the drama, look no further than knockout soccer. There’s a reason MLS Playoffs moved to single elimination and that the playoffs are the best the league gets when it comes to drama. If you enjoy the sport for watching young talent developing, this tournament has the opportunity to provide a showcase for young players to make an impact with the addition of extra substitutions as per IFAB (International Football Association Board or the people who make the rules or “laws” of the game). I personally think this tournament can go either way in terms of veterans vs young players, but we will see how teams approach it as it approaches and progresses.

If you watch the sport for the atmosphere, this will be weird without fans, and we all want them back as soon as possible. FOX has been experimenting with added crowd noise for “enhanced audio” and its weird, some love it and some hate it, just expect a bunch of hate on twitter during these games about it. I personally love watching it for the individual moments of skill, the recognition of when to perform an action that someone at my skill level wouldn’t recognize in that split second moment, or even just seeing a new pattern that breaks down a line of pressure or pulls the opponent out of a defensive block. However at the end of the day we all watch because we love soccer, and we are happy MLS is Back (even if they could come up with a better name for it).