Soccer kicks off this weekend with high-stakes MLS matchups on FOX — here’s what you need to know
LOS ANGELES - American team sports return to FOX this week for the first time since March, as the "MLS is Back Tournament: celebrates the resumption of Major League Soccer’s 25th season.
When the league — and all other in the United States — shut down in March, we were only two weeks into a 34-game regular season that was scheduled to last into October. This is different from the NBA and NHL, trying to now finish their seasons this summer, and from MLB, which will be starting from scratch. So, how to restart?
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The “MLS is Back Tournament” sees all teams living, working and playing at the Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. Modeled after soccer’s World Cup tournament system-- and aware that the “Big Summer Soccer Tournament” has become a staple of American sports television-- the teams have been divided into six groups.
Teams will compete in a group stage followed by a knockout bracket, and the winner will split a hefty purse of bonus money and earn a coveted spot in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League against the top teams in the rest of our region of the world.
What’s worth noting is that each team’s three group stage games will also count in the regular season standings, alongside the two games everyone has already played, and ahead of what MLS hopes is the resumption of the season in home stadiums later this summer.
The top two teams from each group will advance, with the only exception being Group A, where the top three clubs will advance, due to Group A having more teams than all other groups. The three next-best finishers will advance as well. It all adds up to a staggering 54 games total spread over 35 days-- including games every day from July 8 to 23, 16 of which will air on FOX and FS1.
Here's how each group breaks down:
This is the most unpredictable group for a few reasons. Unlike the rest of the groups which are composed of four teams, Group A has five, meaning the top three finishers automatically advance (and perhaps a fourth as a wild card).
Among the teams composing Group A is one of this year’s expansion teams, Inter Miami. Orlando City and Chicago Fire feature brand new coaches (Oscar Pareja and Raphael Wicky, respectively) who are trying to engineer turnarounds for clubs who have underachieved in recent seasons. Then you have last year's first and third place finishers in the Eastern Conference, New York City (themselves with new coach, Ronny Delia) and Philadelphia Union (who were part of the final MLS game pre-shutdown, a wild 3-3 draw at LAFC on FS1 that was one of the most fun games we’ve called in years).
There will be a Group A doubleheader on FS1 on Sunday, July 19: New York City vs. Chicago at 8 p.m. ET, and followed by Philadelphia vs. Miami at 10:30 p.m. ET.
Anchored by the defending MLS Cup champion Seattle Sounders (their second title in four years), this group has some fun history stored up in its match-ups.
Seattle and FC Dallas played an all-time playoff classic last October, with the Sounders scraping by with a 4-3 victory in extra time, thanks to a Jordan Morris hat trick.
The San Jose Earthquakes and Vancouver Whitecaps, like Seattle, trace their histories to the North American Soccer League (NASL) of the 1970s and have a long list of old scores to settle against each other.
Will there be some upsets here, or will the champs keep rolling along?
This group also has some wonderful history and plenty of past success.
Toronto FC were denied their second MLS Cup title in three years by Seattle last November. In Group C, they find themselves with the Montreal Impact, with whom they share one of the best MLS rivalries.
The other two teams are focused on reclaiming their past glories. D.C. United and the New England Revolution have each claimed five Eastern Conference titles, the most in the league’s history. Led by coaching legend Bruce Arena, the Revs are this year’s top candidate for the title of “Sleeping Giant Waking Up.”
Fun fact: D.C. coach Ben Olsen not only played for Arena, both when Olsen was in college at Virginia and while playing in the pros for D.C., but he actually lived in Arena’s house as a rookie!
We’ll see these two old friends face off when D.C. United plays New England next Thursday, July 16 at 8 p.m. ET on FS1.
Before the shutdown, in the first two weeks of the MLS season, there were only three Western Conference teams who had a perfect record. They're all together in this group.
Last year, Minnesota United made “The Jump” from expansion squad strugglers in their first two seasons to legit contenders in their third. Now, they look to have picked up right where they left off (at least until the league itself stopped).
Meanwhile, Sporting Kansas City and the Colorado Rapids were more surprising. Sporting KC were coming off their worst season in a decade, but remade their roster in the offseason. Colorado, with memories of a similar turnaround in 2016, came out of the gates hot under new coach Robin Fraser and a roster that’s stacked with MLS veterans who felt disrespected by their former clubs.
And don’t forget Real Salt Lake, another MLS roster stocked with homegrown stars alongside the league’s all-time games-played leader, Kyle Beckerman.
Perhaps the best doubleheader of the entire “MLS is Back Tournament" gets this group off with a bang, including a Saturday night primetime stage on FOX.
Atlanta United and the New York Red Bulls are two of the best teams in recent MLS history. They’ve produced epic battles for trophies, and, as much as they don’t seem to like each other, they LOVE to play against each other.
And they will-- Saturday night, July 11 at 8 p.m. ET live on FOX-- a game we're thrilled to have as our first of the tournament.
But the fireworks don’t stop there. Immediately after on FS1 is a match-up that features of the newest rivalries in MLS: the Columbus Crew against FC Cincinnati.
Nicknamed “Hell Is Real” after a famous billboard about halfway between the two Ohio cities on Interstate 71, the Crew are in the midst of engineering a rebirth of sorts, having made changes to their roster, front office and stadium.
Cincinnati, meanwhile, used the break to hire new coach Jaap Stam, a championship-winning defender who has played for the likes of Manchester United and is just trying to help get the second-year expansion team going.
This is a must-watch night!
This is probably the most exciting group of the tournament, and it gets underway with a doubleheader Monday, July 13 on FS1.
Los Angeles FC, last year’s record-breaking regular season champions, have gotten even better with additions this spring like Bradley Wright-Phillips (one of the best scorers in MLS history) and Andy Najar (a former D.C. United homegrown star who is one of the best attack-minded defenders in the league).
The LA Galaxy are trying to remind us all they are the best team in MLS history. The Galaxy made the biggest splash of the offseason by signing Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez. He and LAFC’s Carlos Vela are two of the biggest stars in Mexican soccer history, now plying their trade in SoCal.
The Portland Timbers restocked the attacking end of their roster this winter with Diego Valeri, who this month can become the third player in MLS history to score 80 goals and 80 assists in his career (and they have old, strong grudges with both LA teams).
The Houston Dynamo, meanwhile, have underperformed in recent years despite the impressive names decorating their roster. Now, they have put American soccer legend Tab Ramos in charge as head coach.
It’ll be LAFC vs. Houston at 8 p.m. ET, followed by the Galaxy vs. Portland at 10:30 p.m. ET on Monday, July 13 on FS1.
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