PSP roundtable: MLS is Back Tournament

Photo courtesy Andrew Zwarych / Philadelphia Union

Less than 24 hours from now, the Philadelphia Union return to action in unprecedented circumstances.

After a global pandemic pressed pause on the MLS season — along with most of life as we know it — the league’s return to play comes in the form of a knockout-style tournament at the Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Florida.

Interest in the tournament is as much focused on what’s on the field — the competition, which has prize money and a Concacaf Champions League berth at state — as what’s off it — where MLS will try to keep players, staff, and all those necessary to stage the tournament safe from COVID-19.

We asked our writers about some of the key questions surrounding the tournament. Here’s what they had to say.

Do you think the MLS is Back Tournament is a good idea?

Peter Andrews: The concept is solid: get everyone in a bubble and put on a show while you buy time to figure out the rest of the season. But it seemed like a better idea four weeks ago, when coronavirus cases weren’t spiking across the country.

Dan Walsh: In theory, yes. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy or that history will prove it was the right call.

Chris Gibbons: It’s a pragmatic one that addresses head on the problem that there are no viable alternatives to playing (waiting for a vaccine, herd immunity, a coherent national strategy, a collective agreement on safety precautions, etc., means simply not playing for an indefinite period of time, which is impossible).

Nick Fishman: No, it’s not a good idea. In a vacuum, this is the best idea MLS has had in quite some time. It’s innovative, and I wouldn’t mind this non-traditional start to the season continuing in future years. I partly fell in love with soccer because of this style of tournament structure. But we’re not in a vacuum. COVID-19 cases are rising across the country, including in the tournament’s host state. FC Dallas has already withdrawn. We all miss sports, but this is an unnecessary risk.

Tim Jones: The bubble concept is like the body structure of an insect. It works only if the outer shell maintains its integrity effectively. But the internal immune system has already been activated.  We can only hope it is well designed to cope with the breaches.Full marks to the Union for arriving with no apparent infections.

Andrew Speizman: As an MLS/Union fan I’m thrilled that there will be matches starting up this week and the tournament format is the best, though certainly not the ideal, way to expedite play.  I do worry though that the coronavirus will have an impact on the tournament because it started up too soon.  It would be tragic to see infections spread among the players and team staff. Beyond the obvious danger the illness poses to the individuals, teams might lose players and be forced to forfeit or withdraw from the tournament altogether – as FC Dallas has already done.

How would you define a successful tournament for the Union?

Peter: The Union have the talent, a favorable schedule, and their preparation has been relatively smooth.  They should win at least one match in the knockout round. Most important, of course: everyone ends the tournament virus-free.

Dan: Nobody catches the virus. Good soccer is played. Fans are engaged.

Chris: Success is a semi-final berth and no injuries, though I’ll take health over performance in this set up.

Nick: I wouldn’t put a lot of stock into what basically equates to a second preseason, but the Union are playing two expansion teams in their three games. The Union need to advance, especially since these first three games carry over to the regular season.

Tim: No infections, no major orthopedic injuries, and no serious soft-tissue ones. Oh, and four to six wins.

Andrew: The Union certainly have to make it through the group stage, and with their favorable draw should easily secure a spot in the first knockout round.  If they are the top-tier team we hope they are, the team will make it into the quarterfinals and, depending on the matchup, either win and end up in the semifinals or at the very least play a good, competitive game.

With five substitutions allowed, how do you expect to see Jim Curtin change his lineup and substitution patterns? 

Pete: Curtin’s never been big on squad rotation, but he may need it to get through the dense tournament schedule. I’m curious whether we’ll see each of the reserve outside backs — Matt Real and Olivier Mbaizo — see more time, considering the amount of work those positions have to do in the Union’s 4-4-2. Could be a good opportunity for fresh legs in each match.

Dan: We’ll hopefully see multiple combinations of the three lead center backs, more midfielders will share minutes, El Brujo will continue his path toward becoming everyone’s favorite player, and Curtin will actually use all five substitutions because his concern for his players’ well-being will outweigh his tendency to keep one sub in the pocket.

Chris: I fully expect Curtin to keep his foot on the gas, guessing that other teams won’t be quite as fit as his group. The way the Union attacked LAFC is indicative of what’s possible with that mentality, and it could manifest itself in more wholesale substitutions, changes in formation mid-game, or reverse subs where players start games to try and snag an early goal but come out quickly in order to shore up the defense.

Nick: Rotation is going to be key, and luckily the Union are two-deep at most positions. It’s going to be fun watch Curtin mix and match his youngsters with the veterans.

Tim: Florida summers stay hot and humid all day, and sometimes at night. While Curtin is credible is saying his players are in better shape now than they were in February, by his own past descriptions of the preseason conditioning process, his midfielders and strikers cannot be in 90 minutes game shape. And, since he probably knows his post-tournament game schedule’s pace, he has to condition his major reserves in these games as well as his starters.

Andrew: I don’t expect any wild deviations from past lineup and substitution patterns, but having the two additional subs does allow the team the opportunity to get more players time on the field and keep them fresh in this compressed schedule.  I do see rotating the three starting-caliber center backs and getting Andrew Wooten some time.

What Union player are you most intrigued to see in this tournament? 

Peter: Matej Oravec. It’s hard to remember now, but the offseason acquisition’s omission from the first two matchday squads was an early season talking point. Will he play? If he does, how does he look?

Dan: El Brujo. His Union career could end today, and people would still remember his performance against LAFC.

Chris: El Brujo. It takes a lot for a player to endear himself to a fanbase in 90 minutes, but El Brujo has taken that challenge and run with it. If he starts blowing up NYC FC’s midfield the way he did LAFC’s, Union fans will have to buy a new jersey with his name on the back.

Nick: I’m going to cheat and name two. First, this is the perfect opportunity for Michee Ngalina. Sergio Santos and Kacper Przybylko aren’t going to play every minute of every game. At just 20-years-old, Ngalina will have the opportunity to flash the talent I think he has. Second, Olivier Mbaizo will have the same type of chance. Odds are he’ll get the nod to showcase his stuff in one of the three group games. It’s time to show if he can challenge Ray Gaddis at right back.

Tim: Matej Oravec, Jack de Vries, Anthony Fontana, Michee Ngalina, Olivier Mbaizo, and Cole Turner.

Andrew: After an exciting and gritty coming out against LAFC (was that a decade ago?), I’m curious to see how Jose Martinez plays.  Also want to see Jamiro Monteiro get back into form and Sergio Santos continue his good run.

Do you think the Union are at an advantage or disadvantage in a knockout-style tournament?  Why?

Pete: The Union have made cup runs in the not too distant past, but the lineup has seen a lot of turnover since then. The biggest advantage may just be the relatively good health of the team. It’s also hard to evaluate how intense the tournament will actually be until we get to the third group stage match for each team.

Dan: Neither. This is basically like preseason. Yes, prize money and a Champions League spot are at stake, but few teams are likely to be fit, including the Union.

Chris: Advantage. Curtin is not only the most experienced manager in the Union’s group, he has reiterated multiple times in the past few weeks how fit his team has been in training. If that’s true, they’ll run roughshod over their meager competition and put away any worries about the midsummer Orlando heat.

NickCan I direct the audience to the Union’s performances in the U.S. Open Cup under Curtin?

Tim: The answer focuses on the strength of the club’s bench.  Unlike a World Cup, this tournament is not followed by a month’s vacation, but – probably – by games every four or five days for as long as two and a half months, hopefully with one or two breaks. Curtin cannot burn out his starters the way a national team coach at the World Cup can. Why do I most want to know about six bench players 22-years-old or younger?

Andrew: Everyone is going to enter the tournament a little rusty and the Union’s high-press and counter-attack style of play should take advantage of the other teams’ rust.  Also the Union’s depth will help keep everyone fresh.

Who will win the MLS is Back Tournament?

Pete: The Union. Why the hell not?

Dan: Seattle, but this is me picking a team out of a hat. All bets are off with something like this.

Chris: FC Dallas.

Nick: Seattle Sounders. They know how to win.

Tim: I still favor LAFC, just not as strongly as when its roster included the reigning MVP — who won’t be in Florida due to his wife’s pregnancy.

Andrew: My original pick was the obvious one – LAFC, but we just learned that Carlos Vela will be sitting this one out so…  let’s say Seattle defeating the Union 2-1 in extra-time.

One Comment

  1. Really agree with Peter Andrews — This tournament seemed like a better idea four weeks ago prior to the recent COVID surges. I’m really hoping everyone stays safe and healthy. I’ll probably tune in tomorrow morning just to remember what it’s like to watch an MLS match. Seems like it’s been a year.

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