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MLS is Back Tournament mega preview: How all 26 clubs are shaping up


The MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando kicks off on July 8, exactly four months since the last official MLS match played on March 8 due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And it can’t get here fast enough.

The MLSsoccer.com editorial team took stock of all 26 participating clubs as they reset and prepare to return to action following the long layoff. Here’s a handy guide as to what you can expect from every MLS team: 

Atlanta United

It’s been nearly three months since Josef Martinez came out of surgery to reconstruct his torn right ACL. It would be peak Josef to see him make an odds-defying early comeback, but not in time for the Orlando tournament — as much as it would give him great joy to win a trophy in his archrivals’ backyard.

Weeks 1 & 2: Atlanta were perfect after two games with back-to-back 2-1 wins. Same score, same execution: The Five Stripes didn’t overpower Nashville and Cincinnati — they were simply better.

Early MVP: Emerson Hyndman and Ezequiel Barco were the gamebreakers for Atlanta with all four goals. Hyndman’s emergence was promising, but the budding Pity Martinez-Barco partnership is what really had Atlanta fans dreaming big.

Projected XI (5-2-3, left to right): Guzan – Walkes, Meza, Robinson, Escobar, Lennon – Hyndman, Remedi – Barco, Jahn, Pity Martinez; Coach: Frank de Boer

Tournament Prospects: With Miles Robinson and Franco Escobar back from injury — Escobar even helped ATLUTD win the eMLS Tournament Special during the hiatus — Atlanta have the depth and tactical flexibility to compete with any team and the difference makers to come out on top … even without Josef. They enter the tournament as one of the favorites to win it all.

CHI

Chicago Fire FC

The 2020 season has represented a fresh start for Chicago Fire FC on and off the field, and their fans saw promising, early signs in the first two matches under new head coach Raphael Wicky. The evolution of the new-look Fire continues in Orlando.

Weeks 1 & 2: If not for a Jordan Morris stoppage-time winner, the Fire arguably deserved a Week 1 draw at defending MLS Cup champions Seattle. They then followed that up with a come-from-behind, 1-1 draw at New England. In two of the tougher road trips in MLS, Chicago showed glimpses of real quality.

Early MVP: Forward Robert Beric just might be the real deal at center forward for the Fire. His goal in Chicago’s season opener showcased the finishing skills that ultimately led Chicago to open the purse strings to acquire him from France’s Ligue 1.

Projected XI (4-1-4-1, left to right): Kronholm – Bornstein, Calvo, Kappelhof, Sekulic – Gimenez – Aliseda, Medran, Mihailovic, Frankowski – Beric; Coach: Raphael Wicky

Tournament Prospects: Chicago signed attacking mid Luka Stojanovic (Feb. 20), right back Boris Sekulic (Feb. 15) and Argentine winger Ignacio Aliseda (Feb. 19) prior to the season’s suspension, but the trio have yet to feature in a match. Midfield marshal Gaston Gimenez also hasn’t started to date. The potential integration of four new faces in the starting XI could turn Chicago into the surprise package of Group A.

CIN

FC Cincinnati

With the introduction of new head coach Jaap Stam in late May and the announcement that star goal scorer Jurgen Locadia would remain through June 2021, FC Cincinnati resolved the two biggest questions facing the team during the hiatus. Now it’s up to Stam and Locadia to deliver, beginning in Orlando.

Weeks 1 & 2: The Orange and Blue had strong spells on the road against two East powers in the NY Red Bulls and Atlanta United, but their comeback attempts fell a goal short in both cases. The biggest takeaway: Unlike their 2019 expansion season, this Cincy team gave the distinct impression that it can score goals.

Early MVP: Much like last year, Allan Cruz was a bright spot to start the season. The Costa Rican midfielder logs a consistent, tireless shift on a weekly basis, plus he now has eight goals in 24 MLS matches.

Projected XI (4-3-3, left to right): Richey – Garza, Waston, Van der Werff, Deplagne – Cruz, Amaya, De Jong – Kubo, Locadia, Regattin; Coach: Jaap Stam

Tournament Prospects: They’ve already shown they can go toe-to-toe with Group E foes RBNY and Atlanta. Toss in a Hell is Real rivalry match and a potential new coach bump and the tournament group stage could help set the team on a new trajectory, especially if they can make it out of the group.

COL

Colorado Rapids

It’s Colorado’s first full season under head coach Robin Fraser, and it’s gone about as well as anyone could have hoped. Two wins from two games had the Rapids surging in 2020, and then the COVID-19 pandemic halted their momentum in March. Can they pick up where they left off in Orlando?

Weeks 1 & 2: The Rapids came flying out of the gates, starting with a stoppage-time Week 1 win at D.C. United. They followed that up with another thrilling victory, this time a 2-1 home win against Orlando that featured a Drew Moor go-ahead header.

Early MVP: The Rapids’ best spells in those games typically came when Englishman Jack Price was expertly conducting traffic, and he recorded two assists in those first two weeks. The deep-lying midfielder has also turned into a corner-kick specialist of sorts, and does many of the little things that allow Colorado’s attacking players to thrive.

Projected XI (4-2-3-1, left to right): Irwin – Vines, Abubakar, Moor, Rosenberry – Acosta, Price – Shinyashiki, Namli, Lewis – Kamara; Coach: Robin Fraser

Tournament Prospects: No one would fault Rapids fans for thinking their club can make a deep run in Orlando, especially if the classy Younes Namli can create goals from nothing like he did in Week 2. They’ll need his magic in an evenly-matched Group D that is impossible to predict.

CLB

Columbus Crew SC

Columbus were almost universally deemed the offseason’s big winners, an unofficial award that can either spell concern or optimism. It’s been the latter so far, as highlighted by the introduction of club-record signing Lucas Zelarayan. The Crew are now viewed as one of the Eastern Conference’s top teams, and it’s on them to back up those expectations.

Weeks 1 & 2: Aided by an early NYCFC red card, the Crew (and Zelarayan) got off to a winning start in Week 1 and followed that up with a strong showing in Seattle, though the reigning MLS champs clawed back for a 1-1 draw. The four total points made for positive early vibes in Columbus.

Early MVP: Darlington Nagbe doesn’t get his name on the scoresheet too often, but that doesn’t make him any less instrumental to the Crew’s playing style. He’s a possession hub who can drive play forward from midfield, and he seems destined for more success after reuniting with head coach Caleb Porter.

Projected XI (4-2-3-1, left to right): Room – Valenzuela, Mensah, Wormgoor, Afful – Nagbe, Artur – Pedro Santos, Zelarayan, Mokhtar – Zardes; Coach: Caleb Porter

Tournament Prospects: Depth is vital in any tournament, and the Crew have it all over the field. Plus, difference-makers like Zelarayan and US forward Gyasi Zardes could spark a deep run. The Hell is Real rivalry match will be big, but the Crew have a unique chance to make an ambitious statement if they can also outdo East powers Atlanta United and the NY Red Bulls for the top places in Group E.

DAL

FC Dallas

The youngest team in MLS has had plenty of time to hit the books under head coach Luchi Gonzalez over the past couple of months, as they try and build off a playoff appearance in 2019. They started the season strong, despite the absences of a few key players, and will look to bring that energy down to Orlando.

Weeks 1 & 2: FCD started 2020 with two home games, beating the Philadelphia Union 2-0 and drawing Montreal 2-2 after fighting back from a 2-0 hole. The hero of that last game? Of course, it was another teenage academy sensation, Ricardo Pepi.

Early MVP: Reggie Cannon has been rumored to be the target of a big-money transfer move by European clubs, and the 22-year-old’s play to start the year will have done nothing to dissuade the international interest. He showed why he’s become a US national team starter and one of the top right backs in MLS.

Projected XI (4-2-3-1, left to right): Maurer – Hollingshead, Ziegler, Hedges, Cannon – Acosta, Santos – Picault, Ferreira, Barrios – Ondrasek; Coach: Luchi Gonzalez

Tournament Prospects: After pushing eventual champs Seattle to the brink during the 2019 postseason, big things are expected from FC Dallas, who are bolstered by the addition of veteran Franco Jara. The Orlando tournament provides them the opportunity to make the leap from plucky upstart to contender status and the rematch against Seattle in Group B will prove a measuring stick. Getting out of the group is the minimum expectation.

DC

D.C. United

D.C. entered the post-Wayne Rooney era with plenty of reasons to be excited. In place of the English legend they brought in a collection of new faces: Peru international Edison Flores, Estonian goal scorer Erik Sorga and proven MLS stars Julian Gressel and Federico Higuain. Head coach Ben Olsen has had plenty of time to think about how he will unleash all his special attacking options.

Weeks 1 & 2: The Black and Red were still working on that on-field chemistry during their opening two games, both played at Audi Field. They dropped a 2-1 result to visiting Colorado in Week 1 and then needed to come from behind to down expansion Inter Miami, 2-1, a week later.

Early MVP: There was no true standout after two games as the team worked on getting the kinks out, but center back Frederic Brillant was a strong defensive presence and he also scored the game-winner against Miami in Week 2.

Projected XI (4-2-3-1, left to right): Hamid – Mora, Birnbaum, Brillant, Canouse – Felipe, Moreno – Asad, Gressel, Flores – Kamara; Coach: Ben Olsen

Tournament Prospects: With time to crystalize everyone’s roles, D.C. should display more cohesion in Orlando and it will only help to have fully-fit playmaker Higuain as an option. Qualifying for the knockout rounds from Group C is a realistic goal for a talented team with few reps under its belt. And if the attack starts clicking, they can make some noise after that.

HOU

Houston Dynamo

The start of the Tab Ramos era in Houston got off to a mixed start but there’s plenty of talent to change that once the Dynamo head down to Orlando. Alberth Elis should be fit and healthy after missing the first two games of 2020 and the Honduran international’s presence alone should be enough to put opposing defenses on edge.

Weeks 1 & 2: The Dynamo were the better side in the much-anticipated opener against Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and the LA Galaxy, but they had to settle for the 1-1 home draw. Their Week 2 match back in March was one to forget, as Sporting Kansas City rolled over them to the tune of a 4-0 win.

Early MVP: Few options here, but Mauro Manotas has the lone goal of the season. The 24-year-old Colombian was a threat throughout the opener but failed to get involved at Children’s Mercy Park.

Projected XI (4-3-3, left to right): Maric – Lundkvist, Figueroa, Struna, Valentin – Boniek, Vera, Martinez – Rodriguez, Manotas, Elis; Coach: Tab Ramos

Tournament Prospects: Ramos is still getting his feet wet as an MLS coach and this will be a good opportunity to learn more about his team. And with Group F matches against the likes of LAFC, LA Galaxy and the Portland Timbers, the Dynamo will definitely be tested.

LAFC

LAFC

To state the obvious, LAFC play some of the most attractive and dynamic soccer across MLS. They were one playoff heartbreak away from storming to MLS Cup in 2019, and are highly motivated to take that next step. Things are still looking up with their collection of attacking talents. If there’s any question, it’s replacing 2019 Best XI center back Walker Zimmerman after he was traded to Nashville in preseason.

Weeks 1 & 2: LAFC largely picked up where they left off in 2019, earning four points from their first two matches. Both were high-profile games, starting with a 1-0 Week 1 victory in Inter Miami’s debut match, sparked by a chipped golazo from Vela. Week 2 was an electric affair at Banc of California Stadium that was one of the best regular-season clashes in recent memory, ending in a 3-3 draw against Philadelphia.

Early MVP: Carlos Vela. He’s the reigning MLS MVP, and had two goals through the season’s first two games. Last year he put up video game-like stats on his way to a league-record 34 goals and 15 assists. Need we say more?

Projected XI: (4-3-3, left to right): Vermeer – Blackmon, Jakovic, Segura, Palacios – Atuesta, Kaye, Blessing – Rodriguez, Vela, Rossi; Coach: Bob Bradley

Tournament Prospects: After winning the 2019 Supporters’ Shield with a record-setting 72 points, LAFC will be among the clear favorites when play gets underway in Orlando. Bob Bradley’s team is absolutely ruthless in the final third, and their high-pressing system leaves opponents trapped. Sustaining that over a prolonged stretch won’t be easy, but GM John Thorrington has assembled a team with depth at nearly every spot. They won’t need any extra motivation to finish on top of rivals LA Galaxy in Group F.

LA

LA Galaxy

As is embedded in their identity, LA have no shortage of star power. Turning that into results isn’t automatic by any means, though on paper a final-third group that includes Cristian Pavon, Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez should work itself out at some point, even as the Galaxy parted ways with Aleksandar Katai over racist and violent comments made by his wife. There are also questions about the team’s depth at center back, though additions could be coming soon.

Weeks 1 & 2: A highly-anticipated home debut for Chicharito fell flat, as LA dropped a 1-0 result in Week 2 against Vancouver Whitecaps FC. That sowed discord after a 1-1 draw to start the campaign at the Houston Dynamo — which they will have a chance to improve on in Orlando — leaving LA short of early expectations — both internal and external.

Early MVP: Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez was held scoreless during his first two MLS games, as LA repeatedly pumped crosses into the 18-yard box. Still, it’s far too early to even begin writing off the Mexican superstar as he looks to fill the shoes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who had 30 goals and seven assists a season ago.

Projected XI: (4-3-3, left to right): Bingham — Insua, Gonzalez, Depuy, Feltscher — dos Santos, Corona, Kljestan — Lletget, Hernandez, Pavon; Coach: Guillermo Barros Schelotto

Tournament Prospects: From a Galaxy perspective, the tournament’s start will be all about proving the 2020 season’s tepid start wasn’t indicative of long-term struggles. All it takes is one or two strong performances to swing momentum in their favor, with one of them coming against LAFC, and then LA could go far. It’ll also be interesting to see what role awaits attacking midfielder Efrain Alvarez – possible super sub? – in the squad, after missing the first two games of the season through injury.

MIA

Inter Miami CF

Inter Miami were just getting started in MLS and set for their first-ever home game when play was suspended in March. But, even without games or group training, the new roster and coach have been bonding and embracing their La Familia mindset from a distance. They’ve also had plenty of time to reflect on the lessons from their opening two games.

Weeks 1 & 2: Miami emerged from those first two games in MLS with zero points but with plenty to build on from two narrow defeats. A 1-0 loss at the home of Supporters’ Shield holders LAFC is no disgrace for any team and against D.C. United a week later, Diego Alonso and his squad were left scratching their heads as to how a dominant 1-0 lead turned into a 2-1 reversal.

Early MVP: Star DP Rodolfo Pizarro made an early impact for his new club with a goal in Week 2, while the defense looked strong with encouraging starts from Nico Figal and Ben Sweat.

Projected XI (4-2-3-1, left to right): Robles — Sweat, Torres, Figal, Powell — Ulloa, Trapp — Pellegrini, Pizarro, Morgan — Robinson; Coach: Diego Alonso

Tournament Prospects: When the tournament kicks off, with a matchup against Orlando, Miami will be boosted by the return from injury of Julian Carranza. While rookie Robbie Robinson acquitted himself well in his opening minutes in MLS, the extra option up front will be most welcome. Even without Carranza, Miami showed enough in their opening two games to suggest they could spring a surprise in Orlando.

MIN

Minnesota United FC

Minnesota United will arrive in Orlando as arguably the league’s most impressive performers so far this season. After making the playoffs for the first time in 2019, there is plenty of cause for even higher ambitions this time around. An experienced squad with a sprinkling of talented youth, no team will be eager to take on Adrian Heath’s squad.

Weeks 1 & 2: You couldn’t wish for a better start to the season than Minnesota enjoyed, with two dominant, counter-attacking wins on the road against the Portland Timbers and San Jose Earthquakes. With eight goals, they were also the top scorers in MLS through the first two weeks.

Early MVP: Ike Opara was as solid as ever at the back, Jan Gregus and Ethan Finlay were exceptional in midfield and on the wing but the early headlines were grabbed by new striker Luis Amarilla. The Paraguayan is already two goals toward his prediction of 25 for the season.

Projected XI (4-2-3-1, left to right): Miller — Gasper, Opara, Boxall, Metanire — Gregus, Alonso — Lod, Molino, Finlay — Amarilla; Coach: Adrian Heath

Tournament Prospects: Can Minnesota navigate the hiatus and carry the momentum of their thrilling start to the season into the tournament, or will their willingness to concede possession cost them in the heat of the Orlando summer? If they can navigate that hurdle— and the fact that they were drawn into maybe the toughest group — they could be a real threat to grab a Concacaf Champions League slot for the first time.

MTL

Montreal Impact

The biggest story of Montreal’s offseason was the hiring of Thierry Henry as head coach after a third straight playoff-less season. But it also came with some question marks, given the former New York Red Bulls striker struggled at Monaco during his managerial debut. Any concerns have been assuaged so far, with Henry pushing Montreal into the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals and beginning the MLS campaign with a bang.

Weeks 1 & 2: Fueled by their CCL success, Montreal had a 1W-0L-1D record in MLS play before the season was suspended. It started with a 2-1 win over New England at the Stade Olympique that included a splendid Maximiliano Urruti chip over Matt Turner to snag three points. Urruti stayed red-hot with a brace during a 2-2 draw at Dallas in Week 2, though Montreal were left disappointed after surrendering a two-goal lead.

Early MVP: If you picked Urruti as your early-season MVP for the Impact, please stand up. Odds are that few anticipated that the Argentine striker would have three goals through two games — he had four all of last season — but he raced out to lead the Impact’s attack.

Projected XI: (3-4-2-1, left to right): Diop – Waterman, Binks, Fanni – Corrales, Wanyama, Piette, Brault-Guillard – Bojan, Taider – Urruti; Coach: Thierry Henry

Tournament Prospects: Montreal surprised plenty of neutrals during the season’s early goings, so the pause came at an inopportune time. Although that presents a challenge, the Impact could be an underdog side for a knockout-round run. Seeing Toronto FC in their Group C should provide some sparks, along with a rematch against the Revs.

NSH

Nashville SC

One of two expansion teams for the 2020 season, the arc of Nashville’s MLS debut season is still being written. They were barely into Act One when the pandemic halted soccer around the world, though the squad’s framework was beginning to show. Expect Nashville to be a team that grinds out results, relies on defense and then snatches goals on the counterattack.

Weeks 1 & 2: Early-season results are always difficult for expansion teams, and things were no different for Nashville early on. They began with a 2-1 loss against Atlanta United in Week 1, meaning the result didn’t match the electric atmosphere around MLS finally arriving in the Music City. Then in Week 2, Nashville returned to the drawing board after a 1-0 loss at the Portland Timbers that didn’t include much offense for either club.

Early MVP: Walker Zimmerman supplied Nashville’s inaugural MLS goal — it came before over 59,000 fans at Nissan Stadium — and that fact alone stands out. He’s been a bright spot since arriving in a blockbuster trade from LAFC, offering a veteran presence at center back as the expansion club navigates their early MLS days.

Projected XI: 4-2-3-1 (left to right): Willis – Miller, Zimmerman, Romney, Lovitz – McCarty, Godoy – Leal, Mukhtar, Accam – Badji; Coach: Gary Smith

Tournament Prospects: A deep tournament run would be a lot to ask for any expansion team. But getting out of the group stage is far from out of the question, with three teams certain of moving on from Group A. Realistically, Nashville’s prospects are likely to rest heavily on getting a positive result in their opening game against a Chicago Fire FC team that has undergone so many changes on and off the pitch that they share plenty of similarities with an expansion club. Gary Smith’s men will not want to rely on getting a win against a strong Philadelphia Union team or the “hosts” Orlando City in games two and three.

NE

New England Revolution

Most MLS fans, by now, know how New England’s 2019 story went: After a dreadful start, the club brought in sporting director/head coach Bruce Arena and a torrid summer stretch powered the club’s first postseason appearance since 2015. Carles Gil and Gustavo Bou formed one of the league’s top attacking duos, and the entire roster seems bought in for Arena’s first full season at the helm.

Weeks 1 & 2: Injuries bit New England early, with Gil and left back Alexander Buttner missing the club’s first two games. What followed was a 2-1 loss at Montreal in Week 1 and 1-1 draw vs. Chicago at home in Week 2, both disappointing results for a team with high promise. What made them even tougher was two gilt-edged chances that youngsters Tajon Buchanan and Justin Rennicks missed, ones that could have changed the early tune entirely.

Early MVP: The Revs’ coaching staff raved about Henry Kessler in preseason and it was easy to see why. The rookie center back, a Generation adidas signing out of the University of Virginia, looked comfortable in New England’s first two games. His teammates even think he has a national team future.

Projected XI: (4-3-3, left to right): Turner – Buttner, Kessler, Farrell, Bye – Gil, Zahibo, Fagundez – Penilla, Buksa, Bou; Coach: Bruce Arena

Tournament Prospects: Bou, Adam Buksa and a fit again Gil have been talking up the potential for the trio to inflict serious damage on MLS defenses and it’s easy to see why. Toss in goalkeeper Matt Turner’s ability to make game-changing plays and the mercurial nature of winger Cristian Penilla and the Revs could be a real threat to go all the way in Orlando. But they will need to log a strong start. Group C games against Montreal, D.C. United and Toronto FC make reaching the last 16 no foregone conclusion.

NYC

New York City FC

While new manager Ronny Deila replaced outgoing Dome Torrent, NYCFC entered 2020 with arguably the most team cohesion of any side from the previous season, bringing back all of the crucial pieces from a club that finished atop the Eastern Conference in 2019. Now they return to action with Deila having several months to study film from last season and better get to know his side’s capabilities.

Weeks 1 & 2: In the league, 2020 began with a pair of 1-0 losses for the Cityzens, who were trying to balance their league commitments and the learning curve of a new head coach with Concacaf Champions League play. It’s not as bad as the results suggest, however; New York played 87 minutes down a man at Columbus, then were nine minutes away from gutting out an impressive point at Toronto’s BMO Field, one of the league’s toughest away trips.

Early MVP: In tough circumstances, goalkeeper Sean Johnson has kept his club in games, even earning man-of-the-match honors in NYCFC’s loss in Toronto. More of that and he could find himself challenging for more meaningful minutes with the US national team.

Projected XI: (4-1-4-1, left to right): Johnson – Matarrita, Callens, Chanot, Tinnerholm – Sands – Mitrita, Ring, Moralez, Medina – Heber; Coach: Ronny Deila

Tournament Prospects: Pay no attention to the early 2020 results. This remains one of the most talented rosters in the league, and is now boosted by the arrival of Uruguayan midfielder Nicolas Acevedo. It is also a team that has the potential to be the most buoyed by a start that feels fresh. An encounter with Philadelphia is a tough opening to the tournament but NYCFC will be confident of taking enough points needed to advance from the group stage from following assignments against Orlando and Chicago. Once in the knockout rounds expect them to make some noise.

RBNY

New York Red Bulls

The Red Bulls got even younger in 2020, saying goodbye to Bradley Wright-Phillips, Kemar Lawrence and Luis Robles. That leaves Daniel Royer, Tim Parker, Aaron Long and Florian Valot — a quartet who are all age 30 or younger — as the club’s veteran leaders. There’s a sense the red half of New York isn’t quite done building its squad, however.

Weeks 1 & 2: A 3-2 opening weekend win over FC Cincinnati probably shouldn’t have been as close as it was, and perhaps that squad experience — and some fine poaching from FC Cincy’s Jurgen Locadia — were the reasons the Red Bulls let the visitors back into the game. In some ways their Week 2 performance was more encouraging, even though it only resulted in a 1-1 draw at Real Salt Lake’s Rio Tinto Stadium.

Early MVP: After missing most of 2019 out with injury, Valot looks like a man intent on making up for lost time in the Red Bulls midfield, and in the process has announced himself as one of the early favorites for MLS Comeback Player of the Year.

Projected XI: (4-4-2, left to right): Jensen – Seagrist, Long, Parker, Duncan – Kaku, Casseres Jr., Davis, Valot – Royer, White; Coach: Chris Armas

Tournament Prospects: They say tournament football is a young man’s game, and if it’s true in this tournament that should certainly help the Red Bulls. But it’s a fair question to ask if their high press style will translate as well in the Central Florida summers. The Red Bulls, who look set to lose on-loan winger Josh Sims, also face a tough schedule with opening games against Atlanta United and the Columbus Crew.

ORL

Orlando City SC

Veteran MLS manager Oscar Pareja is the man charged with helping Orlando City finally find some on-field success after a frustrating first half-decade that has failed to see the Lions reach the postseason. Orlando signed five players from South America to bolster Pareja’s effort and will get the tournament underway with a first-ever meeting against new Flordia rivals Inter Miami on July 8.

Weeks 1 & 2: After a scoreless season-opening draw against Real Salt Lake, the Lions were victims of Drew Moor’s last-minute winner in a 2-1 away defeat to Colorado. But their slow start may be partly the sign of a team that is still coalescing, with better days ahead.

Early MVP: With Dom Dwyer and Nani both inactive over the opening weeks, Chris Mueller has perhaps shaded the race to be the team’s most consistent offensive threat. He had Orlando’s equalizer in Week 2 after coming on as a substitute, and might’ve actually had the better all-around performance in Week 1.

Projected XI: (4-2-3-1, left to right): Gallese – Joao Moutinho, Jansson, Antonio Carlos, Ruan – Mendez, Junior Urso – Nani, Pereya, Mueller – Dwyer; Coach: Oscar Pareja

Tournament Prospects: Pareja’s club is clearly a work in progress that could benefit from more practice time. Conventional wisdom suggests the home side in any tournament always has an advantage, but it will be interesting to see if playing “host” carries the same weight when the Lions are neither competing at their own facilities nor sleeping in their own beds. All eyes will be on that inaugural clash with their Florida rivals to open the tournament. Get a win there and the Lions could get on a roll    .

PHI

Philadelphia Union

After earning a home playoff game and their first postseason victory in 2019, the Union entered 2020 with the rare weight of genuine expectations in Jim Curtin’s seventh season in charge. The club were less active than some during the offseason but have reason to be confident of going a long way in Orlando.

Weeks 1 & 2: Philly earned only one point from their first two matches, but goodness what a point it was. After opening the season with a loss at FC Dallas, the Union answered with a rousing 3-3 draw at Supporters’ Shield holders LAFC, a match that included a Goal of the Year candidate from offseason defensive import Jakob Glesnes.

Early MVP: Goalkeeper Andre Blake is consistently one of the best at his craft in MLS, as well as in Concacaf with the Jamaica national team, and early 2020 was no exception. He earned man of the match and MLS Team of the Week plaudits despite conceding three times in that draw at LAFC, a performance in which he also made eight saves

Projected XI: (4-3-1-2, left to right): Blake – Wagner, McKenzie, Glesnes, Gaddis – Monteiro, Martinez, Bedoya – Aaronson – Sergio Santos, Przybylko; Coach: Jim Curtin

Tournament Prospects: The Union are another younger squad with some interchangeable parts that could be built to perform well in a short tournament under Central Florida’s hot and humid conditions. While being drawn into the only group of six teams initially looked to have done them little favor, they still shape up as one of the Group A favorites with matches against NYCFC, Nashville and Miami.

POR

Portland Timbers

The Timbers reached their second MLS Cup in manager Giovanni Savarese’s first year in charge, then appeared to regress in 2019, probably owing partly to the difficulties of a season-opening extended road trip amid the expansion of Providence Park. Prior to the season being suspended, that made 2020 look like a pivotal year in the Cascadia club’s long-term plans.

Weeks 1 & 2: The Timbers opened with consecutive home games for the first time in five seasons, but took only three points out of six, answering a season-opening loss to Minnesota with a 1-0 victory over expansion side Nashville. The results marked the continuation of a rare uneven patch in front of the Timbers Army, with Portland only boasting a record of 2W-3L-2D in their last seven league contests at Providence Park.

Early MVP: At age 34, Diego Valeri isn’t capable of regularly taking over a game by himself like he might’ve been during his earlier years with the Timbers. Even so, he has the club’s only goals, and his reliable finishing acumen remains precious for a team that started slow in terms of generating scoring chances.

Projected XI: (4-2-3-1, left to right): Clark – Villafaña, Zuparic, Mabiala, Duvall – D. Chara, Paredes – Blanco, Valeri, Y. Chara – Mora; Coach: Giovanni Savarese

Tournament Prospects: While the start of the 2020 season wouldn’t have exactly filled Timbers fans with optimism, there’s enough talent in their ranks, even with the departure of the previously on-loan Jorge Moreira, to make a deep run. But in arguably the tournament’s toughest group, against the two LA sides and the Houston Dynamo, they will need to be on their game from the very off to avoid an early exit.

RSL

Real Salt Lake

Freddy Juarez didn’t see as many goals as he would have liked through the first two games of his first full season as head coach, but RSL did show some moxie picking up a road point at none other than Orlando in their season opener and getting a late equalizer to salvage another draw at home against the New York Red Bulls in their next match. Figuring out how to jump-start the attack, though, has no doubt been priority number one for Juarez & Co. during the layoff.

Weeks 1 & 2: RSL’s first match was probably the biggest snoozer of the Week 1 slate as they ended in a scoreless draw with Orlando that featured little by way of chances for either side. After conceding just 13 minutes into the next match at home against RBNY, Damir Kreilach came to the rescue with the leveler in the first minute of second-half stoppage time, leaving the club at 0-0-2.

Early MVP: Aside from a well-taken long-range strike from RBNY’s Cristian Casserres Jr., RSL’s defense looked sound through two weeks, with 33-year-old center back Nedum Onuoha playing a key role in holding their opponents to the single goal through two matches.

Projected XI: (4-2-3-1, left to right): MacMath – Toia, Onuoha, Silva, Herrera – Beckerman, Everton Luiz – Meram, Rusnak, Baird – Kreilach; Coach: Freddy Juarez

Tournament Prospects: There’s no question they’ll need to score more to make a run at it, especially in a well-balanced and potentially a defensively strong Group D. RSL could be a sleeper candidate to make a run if they can ignite their attack and combine it with what so far looks to be a solid and disciplined defending group that has plenty of veteran experience.

SJ

San Jose Earthquakes

It’s hard to know what to make of Matias Almeyda’s men as play resumes. On one hand, they bounced back from a dreadful 2018 and nearly made the Western Conference playoffs last season in Almeyda’s first year in charge, giving hope this campaign could see them take another leap forward. But their 2020 got off to an erratic start, as they emerged from a pair of season-opening home matches at just 0-1-1, including a blowout defeat to Minnesota United in their most recent game.

Weeks 1 & 2: After falling behind 2-0 in their opener against Toronto FC, Andy Rios scored the Quakes’ opener before new defender Oswaldo Alanis lashed home a stunning free-kick golazo to salvage a point deep into second-half stoppage time. But any good vibes from that all but vanished the next week, when the Loons came into Earthquakes Stadium and dominated San Jose in a 5-2 rout.

Early MVP: Alanis’ leveler against TFC was one of the highlights of the first two weeks, and the 31-year-old Mexico international looks primed to be a solid addition to the backline.

Projected XI: (4-3-3, left to right): Vega – Lima, Alanis, Kashia, Thompson – Yueill, Eriksson, Espinoza – Hoesen, Rios, Vako; Coach: Matias Almeyda

Tournament Prospects: It all depends. Was the Loons match a blip on the radar for an improved squad, ready to take the next step under the tutelage of Almeyda? Or was it a sign of defensive liabilities that will plague them going forward? The answer to those questions will determine if they have a shot at making some noise in this tourney. If they can beat Vancouver in their second, they certainly have a chance at advancing, but will most likely need a good result against one of two tougher opponents in Seattle and FC Dallas in their first and third games.

SEA

Seattle Sounders

The defending champs’ 2020 roster is now arguably even more loaded than the one that won MLS Cup 2019 with the marquee offseason additions of Brazilian midfielder Joao Paulo and Colombian center back Yeimar Gomez Andrade. A disappointing crash-out in Concacaf Champions League put a bit of a damper on the early-season championship glow, but the Sounders still have as much star power as anyone, led by Nicolas Lodeiro, Jordan Morris and Raul Ruidiaz. And don’t forget, Lodeiro didn’t even play in CCL or the first two games of the season due to hamstring tendinitis, so we still haven’t seen them at full strength in 2020.

Weeks 1 & 2: It was nervy after they fell behind 1-0 early in the second half of their opener against Chicago Fire FC in Seattle, but it was Morris to the rescue, as the Homegrown star struck for a brace, including a dramatic game-winner in second-half stoppage time to seal a 2-1 victory. They fell behind in their second game against Columbus Crew SC, too, but salvaged a 1-1 draw courtesy of a Ruidiaz penalty kick in the second half.

Early MVP: Morris was looking primed for a huge 2020 after the two-goal performance against Chicago. The imposing 25-year-old remains one of the toughest physical matchups for defenders in MLS, and hopes in Seattle were that this was the year he would truly explode as a Landon Donovan MLS MVP candidate

Projected XI: (4-2-3-1, left to right): Frei – Jones, Arreaga, Gomez Andrade, Leerdam – Svensson, Joao Paulo – C. Roldan, Lodeiro, Morris – Ruidiaz; Coach: Brian Schmetzer

Tournament Prospects: It remains to be seen how Joao Paulo and Gomez Andrade fare over a larger slate of games, but if they live up to their billing, this first-choice starting XI stacks up against just about anyone in the league. Though Dallas may give them some trouble, they are the clear group favorites and their expectations will likely be much higher than simply advancing from Group B. If their depth can manage to keep them afloat whenever fixture congestion necessitates some squad rotation, there’s little reason to expect Seattle won’t be right in the mix for the title.

SKC

Sporting Kansas City

There’s no sugarcoating the disappointment of the 2019 campaign for Sporting after they uncharacteristically missed the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons. But if there was any team that looked like an early candidate for the most improved squad in the league, it was this one, led by new big-money forward Alan Pulido and fellow offseason signing Gadi Kinda. Sporting tore apart the Vancouver Whitecaps and the Houston Dynamo in their first two games, looking very much primed to leave the bitterness of 2019 in the rearview mirror

Weeks 1 & 2: Pulido wasted no time showing why he was one of the biggest signings of the offseason, scoring 17 minutes into his debut in Vancouver before a Kinda golazo and a late tally from Erik Hurtado sealed up a 3-1 victory. The fireworks continued the next week against Houston, as Pulido and Kinda each scored another, with Roger Espinoza and Khiry Shelton also finding the net in an emphatic 4-0 home victory.

Early MVP: You wouldn’t be wrong to say Pulido here, as he looked every bit the part of the big-time No. 9 fans had been waiting on for years. But Kinda’s performance has to be equally encouraging for Peter Vermes, considering he was something of a wild card coming into the season and the heavy influence he had on both games.

Projected XI: (4-3-3, left to right): Melia – Martins, Besler, Puncec, Zusi – Espinoza, Ilie, Kinda – Gerso, Pulido, Russell; Coach: Peter Vermes

Tournament Prospects: It should be noted that those first two great results didn’t exactly come against highly-touted opponents, but it’s still hard not to look at the attacking fireworks on display in those matchups and not come away highly intrigued as to what this team’s ceiling could be. They will face tougher opposition than they did in Weeks 1 and 2, with the likes of Minnesota, Colorado and RSL waiting in their group, but Sporting are legitimate contenders if they can manage to pick up where they left off in March.

TOR

Toronto FC

Toronto made it through its first two games without taking a loss, an impressive feat when you consider they were playing without injured captain Michael Bradley and had to contend with a long road trip against the Quakes in their first game before a tough matchup against fellow Eastern Conference powers New York City FC back at BMO Field in their second. The layoff has given Bradley time to heal up, so he should be good to go when play gets back underway.

Weeks 1 & 2: Getting a draw in a road match against an ostensibly improved San Jose side sans Bradley may seem like a solid result on paper, but TFC were left disappointed to not take all three points in their opener after coughing up a 2-0 lead and seeing Oswaldo Alanis score a stunning late leveler. It was all business in the second match, as Ifunanyachi Achara delivered an 81st-minute game-winner that broke a scoreless deadlock for a 1-0 result over NYCFC.

Early MVP: Alejandro Pozuelo remains the real deal. The Spaniard scored a PK in San Jose, hit the woodwork against NYC and continued to show the dynamic ability as a facilitator that makes him one of the very best playmakers the league has to offer.

Projected XI: (4-4-2, left to right): Westberg – Morrow, Mavinga, Gonzalez, Auro – Achara, Osorio, Bradley, Gallardo – Pozuelo, Altidore; Coach: Greg Vanney

Tournament Prospects: If there’s one thing the last few years should have taught us — especially after last year’s run to MLS Cup — it’s that you’d probably be unwise to bet against this group. It’s a proven, experienced bunch, and while they might be another year older, that experience could come in handy in a Group C derby matchup against Montreal, not to mention their games against two more tough outs in D.C. United and Bruce Arena’s New England Revolution.

VAN

Vancouver Whitecaps

Expectations weren’t exactly high for this group after they finished in the Western Conference basement in 2019, and the season-opening blowout loss at home to Sporting probably left many thinking it would be more of the same in 2020. A surprising road win against the LA Galaxy in Week 2, though, gave some hope that second-year head coach Marc Dos Santos has things on the right track.

Weeks 1 & 2: Vancouver became Alan Pulido’s first victims early in the first half and they never recovered, eventually falling 3-1 in a season-opening match that saw them under pressure for much of the night. But the ‘Caps put in a gutsy effort against the Galaxy in their next match, spoiling Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez’s home debut thanks to a 74th-minute goal from Tosaint Ricketts that delivered a 1-0 victory.

Early MVP: Lucas Cavallini has made a strong impression after Vancouver splashed a club-record transfer fee to land him from Liga MX side Puebla. He’s yet to score in MLS, but El Tanque has been a handful.

Projected XI: (4-4-2, left to right): Crepeau – Adnan, Godoy, Khmiri, Nerwinski – Milinkovic, Teibert, Hwang, Dajome – Cavallini, Montero; Coach: Marc Dos Santos

Tournament Prospects: Roster turnover defined much of the offseason for Vancouver, so their Group B chances could come down to depth and the ability to navigate several games in a tight window. It’s going to be a tough path forward in a group that contains the reigning champion Seattle Sounders, another playoff team in FC Dallas, and the wild card that is Matias Almeyda’s Earthquakes, but should the ‘Caps regain their best form, they could surprise folks.





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