Analysis

Group A preview: Predicting the unpredictable

Photo: Marjorie Elzey

There’s no denying it: Group A of the MLS is Back tournament is weird.

Like, really weird.

Not only does Group A have six teams, but it also has five new head coaches, two expansion teams, and three teams that will advance to the knockout round — and possibly four.

Group A is, of course, the group that the Philadelphia Union will be playing in when the MLS is Back tournament kicks off later this week. Along with Philadelphia, Group A is made up of the two new expansion sides, Inter Miami and Nashville SC, hosts Orlando City, as well as NYC FC and the Chicago Fire. 

Today I’ll be analyzing each of the six teams that make up Group A. I’ve broken my analysis up into four parts. Goals for each team, how they’ll approach the game tactically, a few key players to watch, and an overall summary. Keep in mind that due to the nature of the tournament, a lot is subject to change. 

NYC FC

Goals: Get out of the group. After that? Stay healthy. 

NYC FC will be eyeing a spot in the knockout round, favoring themselves to come in first or second in a weak group. Past that, the club is contending for a conference title in the east, and a Champions League semi-final berth. Look for them to prioritize health over results come the knockout round. 

Tactics: Build in the midfield

NYC FC has a strong midfield. They’re anchored by captain Alexander Ring at the No. 8 position, and play a possession minded 4-1-4-1 that allows them to tire out the opposition. They’ll look to build slowly through the midfield before punishing any defensive lapses with quick and accurate passes through to their forwards.

Players to watch: GK Sean Johnson and F Heber.

U.S. international Sean Johnson can turn in incredible performances in front of goal for NYC FC, but has been known to have the occasional mental lapse. His performance is critical to NYC FC’s success. On the other side of the pitch, Brazilian forward Heber has proven to be a pure goalscorer for City. He had 15 goals on 18 starts last season and has already notched a hat trick in the Champions League. He’s exciting to watch and can score whenever the ball is at his feet. 

Summary: 

NYC FC is good, and easily one of the most talented teams in the group. When they play through their midfield effectively, they’re hard to stop, tiring out the opposition with long stints of possession. While City will expect to get out of the group, that will likely be the end of their aspirations. With so much to play for in the regular season and Champions League, the club from the Bronx is likely to value health over results in the knockout round. I’d expect to see them go out in the round 16. 

Chicago Fire

Goals: Reintroduce themselves

Chicago is almost an expansion team at this point. Arguably the most significant goal for the club coming into 2020 was to become relevant again. They rebranded, moved downtown to Soldier field, and revamped the managerial staff and the roster. While they no longer can hope to bring in new fans to Soldier Field, they can still try to bring in a bit of success with a strong tournament performance. Even if that’s a longshot. 

Tactics: It’s tough to say.

It sounds like a copout, but it’s true. The club has a new manager, a new technical director, and a new sporting director. 2020 was already supposed to be a rebuilding year, that combined with the three-month layoff, has added more uncertainty to the Fire’s playstyle. That being said, if there’s a part of the Fire that’s stronger than the rest, it’s their center midfield. Chicago only scored twice in their first two games of 2020, but both goals came after incredible efforts from the midfield. Two incredible balls into the 18, two unbelievable goals. If the Fire can find a way to replicate this with regularity, they may be onto something. 

Player to watch: MF Alvaro Medran 

Medran’s had a solid start for the Fire in 2020, providing a few stunning lobs into the opposition’s 18, one resulting in a goal. Look for him to attempt to spark the offense with more of the same in the MLS is Back Tournament. Knowing that the third-place side goes through in group A, every goal counts, making Medran incredibly crucial to the Fire. 

Summary: 

The Chicago Fire are a mystery. They’ve shown flashes of brilliance out of the midfield, but only flashes. They’ve got an entirely new technical staff, and have been thrown into a tournament all about results when their primary goal this season was the fans. Your guess is as good as mine as to what we’ll see from the Fire. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them challenging for third in the group, but would be equally unphased to see them bottom of the table with no points after three games. 

Inter Miami

Goals: Build team chemistry, win.

As far as first season expansion teams go, Miami has high hopes. They’re modeled off of the incredibly successful Atlanta United, employing a healthy dose of young South American talent and MLS veterans. With only two competitive games under their belt, the priority for Miami is to establish chemistry that they can carry into the regular season. But like I said, they’ve got high hopes. There would be no better way to start a club’s existence than immediately adding a piece of silverware to the brand new trophy case, and you better believe Inter Miami believes they can do it. 

Tactics: Possess and attack.

That’s the game plan; it just hasn’t really worked so far. Manager Diego Alonso has been adamant that the club will stick by this style “until the death.” An attitude that can destroy clubs just as soon as it can bring them success. In their first two competitive matches, Miami struggled to get their feet under them. They’ve been drastically out possessed and out passed in their first two games, something they’ll look to fix in Orlando. With the weaker group and prolonged inactivity of clubs, Miami may just be able to turn things around and finally implement their desired style of play.

Players To Watch: MF Rodolfo Pizarro and GK Luis Robles.

Mexican international Rodolfo Pizarro is Inter’s most significant signing to date. Many fans were hoping there’d be a bit more star power on the side when the season got underway, but there’s no reason Pizarro can’t turn into that star. He’s one of the most multifaceted midfielders in the league and is as valuable defensively as he is going forward. With his shooting and passing skills, he’s a threat whenever he’s on the ball. Luis Robles? If you’re a Union fan, you’re aware of just how frustrating he can be to get past, and he looks no different in Miami. He’s already come up with a few huge saves in their first two games, including an early save of the year candidate against LAFC. Love him or hate him, he’s fun to watch nonetheless. 

Summary:

Inter Miami hasn’t had an ideal start but really hasn’t played that poorly. Manager Diego Alonso seems insistent on practicing their style until they get it right, and Orlando may be a place where that pays off. Every team is coming in rusty, so being an expansion side doesn’t hinder Miami all that much. They’ll be hungry to develop their possession and passing oriented style of play and could ride a wave of form deep into the tournament. While they’re being overlooked as favorites in group A in favor of Philadelphia and New York, don’t be surprised to see Miami make it to the knockout stage, and go on a run once they’re there.

Orlando City

Goals: Build team chemistry.

Orlando is rebuilding; there’s no question about that. They had a profoundly disappointing 2019 campaign that saw them finish second from bottom in the east. Oscar Pareja takes the reigns in 2020 and seems to have the right attitude. After being hired in December, he told reporters he’s “committed to changing the story of the club.”. That goal starts now. Orlando’s improved from last year, with notable upgrades coming in new keeper Pedro Gallese and central defender Antonio Carlos. With an improved team all around, specifically defensively, Orlando City’s primary goal at MLS is Back is to get their rebuild going in the right direction.

Tactics: Start from the back.

Pareja is realistic and has admitted he doesn’t have a total understanding of his side yet. That being said, he knows that they’re strongest defensively, and has said they plan to start there, noting that if they can play well in the back and possess more, they can begin to become more attacking minded. It’s a brutal, realistic answer that deserves respect. Often, new managers immediately promise the glitz and glamor of more goals and more wins, not Pareja. Look for City to press when they have the opportunities but have no qualms about sitting back and absorbing pressure. 

Player to Watch: GK Pedro Gallese. 

Orlando is largely improved throughout in 2020, but Gallase really serves as the only player with potential star power. A good keeper isn’t only fun to watch, but integral to winning close games. If Orlando plays like Pareja says and looks to absorb pressure, a strong performance from Gallese in the group stage could be enough to see Orlando get through the group.

Summary:

Orlando is taking the right steps in 2020 and is working on improving slowly but surely. City will likely look at this tournament as a prolonged pre-season, a chance to build their team chemistry and become familiar with each other. New goalkeeper Pedro Gallese could prove fun to watch and potentially serve as a catalyst to Orlando making it out of the group, even if it’s a bit unlikely. Orlando plays two difficult teams in Miami and NYC FC right off the bat, and could easily find themselves out of the tournament before its even started. That being said, for Orlando, this tournament is much more about team building than results. 

Nashville SC

Goals: Build chemistry, win if possible, and stay healthy.

Nashville is like an odd mix of both Miami and Orlando. They’re new and promising, but don’t have as much skill as Miami. While they’ll be hoping to come out strong and bag some positive results in the tournament, merely building chemistry amongst them is far from a failure for Nashville. That is if they play. As of the time of writing this article, there have been five positive COVID-19 tests within the team, and increasing calls to see Nashville withdrawn from the bubble in Orlando. (Their first match, set to be against Chicago, was postponed on Tuesday.) FC Dallas was withdrawn Monday night for a similar situation. 

Tactics: Absorb, counter attack.

Nashville’s strength is the center of the park, but that’s largely a shared strength amongst teams in group A. Because of that, Nashville will likely find themselves outclassed by both Chicago and Philadelphia, leaving them to absorb pressure and looking for chances on the counter. It’s hard to pinpoint individual players here due to the uncertainty of who’s tested positive for COVID-19. Regardless I think pinning Nashville to favor a counter-attacking style is a safe bet. It’s a popular strategy for under matched teams, and Nashville is sure to be one with at least five players temporarily out of their lineup. 

Players to watch: Everyone. But if I had to choose? CB Walker Zimmerman.

This answer is a cop-out. I know it is. It’s just so hard to pick one or two players in a team that will have at least five players out to start the tournament. If I have to choose, though, it’s Walker Zimmerman. He’s a defensive standout and, under the right circumstances, can stimulate the attack. With Nashville likely to be playing counter-attacking football for two of its three matches, the success of Zimmerman facilitating the offense will be crucial. 

Summary: 

We don’t even know if Nashville is going to be able to play or not. As of Monday night, it isn’t looking ideal, but there’s been no official word. If they do play, they’ll be looking to play off the counter and build chemistry amongst the newly formed team. The side is promising but should be prioritizing team building over results. Walker Zimmerman provides a fulcrum on defense that can see the team swing from being on their heels to being on the attack. While this could work in theory, with their roster depleted before the matches have begun, and at least three stronger teams in the group, don’t expect to see Nashville in the knockout rounds.

Philadelphia Union

Goals: Stay healthy, win.

Philadelphia is the most promising team in the group, and I promise that isn’t my bias coming out. They’re the only group with a returning head coach and return a large percentage of their minutes from last season. Philadelphia is looking to build on a record-setting 2019 season and has many building blocks in place to do it. While staying healthy for the regular season is the priority, it’s hard not to get excited about winning a trophy as a Union fan. 

Tactics: Get forward early and often.

If you’ve been watching the Union for the last year or so, you know what I’m talking about. The Union loves to send balls into the opponent’s third continuously. It can be frustrating to watch when the passes miss their mark and result in turnovers, but it can also be highly successful. Just look at the 3-3 draw at LAFC in the second game of 2020. Playing mainly off the counter, the Union took every opportunity to go forward, sometimes resulting in turnovers, sometimes resulting in stunning goals. The Union doesn’t have much to figure out, they know what style of football they play, and they’ll look to continue it in Orlando.

Player to watch: MF Brenden Aaronson.

We all know how explosive Aaronson can be, he came into his own last season in the first team and will be looking to continue his positive run of form while in Orlando. While a majority of older players may look at this tournament as a risk, or glorified pre-season, it’s hard to imagine a 19-year-old budding star like Aaronson not going all in to win a trophy. Aside from Aaronson, the entire front line for the Union should be a fun watch, regardless of who gets the nod. The team has been hungry this season and netted three incredible goals at LAFC. Despite being rusty, the attacking-minded players on the Union should be worth watching. 

Summary:

Philadelphia is the most consistent team in group A. That’s a strange thing to say about the Union, but for maybe the first time in their history, it’s true. They return a majority of their starters from 2019, and while they lost a few key players in Haris Medunjanin and Fafa Picault, they don’t look to be missing them too much. I could still just be high on the thriller that was the LAFC game, but I think this team does have real potential. While most of the teams in Orlando will merely be looking to get out healthy, I believe Philadelphia could be one of the teams genuinely invested in trying to win.  

Final predictions
  1. Philadelphia Union
  2. NYC FC
  3. Inter Miami
  4. Orlando
  5. Chicago
  6. Nashville

I don’t think Orlando will qualify from fourth. But honestly, your guess is as good as mine, it’s 2020, and anything is on the table.

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