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Consider Context

Photo by Daniel Gajdamowicz

The Union have reached the quarter finals of the MLS is Back Tournament. An achievement worthy of some celebration, but Union fans are right to be a bit reserved in their celebrations. Of course the still-ongoing protests against police violence are an inescapable part of our lives at the moment, and there is the global pandemic of course. But even if we “stick to sports” the Union have shown well in knock-out tournaments before, only to come up short.

And if somehow that isn’t enough to keep a damper on things, we can talk about whether or not the Union have actually “shown well”. Sure goal difference was the only difference between them and Group A winners Orlando City, but none of the performances have been particularly convincing. The Union only scored more than once in the game against expansion side Miami, and they never won by more than one goal. It wouldn’t be fair to describe the full-game performances as poor, but they haven’t been inspiring either. So it’s not unreasonable to be concerned about how the Union will fare against the stronger opposition they are sure to face as the tournament progresses.

Except, it’s not exactly clear that the opposition is actually getting stronger. Toronto FC won Group C, but NYC FC (who have registered just two goals in regular season/group sage play) put three away against them to kick the Canadians out of the MLS bubble. Sporting KC needed penalties to send perennial bottom-feeder Vancouver back to British Columbia. Atlanta United, once the poster child for “new” MLS success, returned to Georgia without Frank de Boer and without ever scoring a goal or winning a game.

So while the Union’s performance may leave something to be desired, they’re far from alone in that problem. In fact, considering the fact that New York and Orlando Cities both won their first knockout round games, there’s a case to be made for the Union’s struggles being less worrisome than some of the others. It may be the case that the Union have already played the best teams of this tournament, and got a result against them.

Good or bad, this is the reality of the MLS is Back Tournament. There will be warts, and even if people look back on this tournament fondly they will always remember the ways in which things could have been done better. But that doesn’t mean this tournament is without value, because like every other tournament it can never answer the question “who is the best team of all time”. It can only show us which rusty, distracted, imperfect team was better than the other rust, distracted, imperfect teams.


  1. Remarkably absent from Jim Curtin’s public comments during the tournament has been the phrase “game fitness” the referring to the overall squad. (He has used it in referring to injury-recovery situations for individuals.)
    I assume he may be under instructions from higher authority not to compare the MiB event to preseason. His emphasis on how well the squad maintained its physical fitness during the break reinforces my cyclical theory.
    But game fitness develops only by playing “game-like” events. Our head coach is the source for my assertions every preseason for the past seven.
    The tournament in Florida equates to the second half of a regular preseason in Florida, when there are three to five scrimmages or exhibition games to bring the starters to full 90 minutes game fitness prior to the season opener.
    In terms of squad development, that is what Florida is for. The difference from preseason is that the games count in the standings, in the group stage.
    Look back at the patterns of the club’s energy level. They follow his preseason patterns, except that he cannot sub en masse once the starters get to their thresholds.
    If they keep winning and advancing, the Union’s starters will be fully match fit by the time they return to Chester.

    • Chris Gibbons says:

      There seems to me to also be a non-0% chance that this tournament will be the only MLS played in 2020. If that’s the case, all qualifying and silverware would have to be based on some part of this competition, which means every point In it and progress made through it matter more.

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