With so much uncertainty in the world of sports right now, Major League Soccer is providing a valuable service to North American viewers: The return of team sports to television.
MLS has implemented a unique in-season tournament that will both reward the winner and count towards regular season standings. For a full breakdown of the World Cup-style tournament, check out my primer: ‘MLS is Back Tournament’: What We Need to Know.
There are still some road bumps to deal with: FC Dallas was forced to back out of the tournament after ten players tested positive for COVID-19. On Thursday morning, Nashville SC also decided it would be wise to withdraw from contention after players tested positive.
Despite this hiccups, the league and tournament carried on, beginning play for the first time since early March.
This will be the first in a series of tournament updates during the Group Stage. The two days saw action between Orlando City SC and Inter Miami CF, New York City FC and the Philadelphia Union, and the New England Revolution facing off against the Montreal Impact.
Orlando City SC defeats Inter Miami CF 2-1 in Stoppage Time
The MLS is Back Tournament kicked off on Wednesday night, with Orlando City SC (the host club) squaring off against Inter Miami CF.
Orlando struggled in 2019, finishing 11th out of 12 teams in the Eastern Conference with a 9-15-10 record. The club was off to an 0-1-1 start in March before the coronavirus pandemic halted MLS’s regular season.
Inter Miami just began play in the 2020 season, and came into the match still searching for their first victory. Miami lost both regular season matches they’ve played, mustering just two goals in total.
Prior to the match, players across the league joined for a demonstration of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter call for social justice. Players involved in the match took a knee at midfield, while over 100 other players surrounded the field with their fists raised, and shirts with messages like “Silence is Violence.”
The somber show of unity lasted for eight minutes and 46 seconds, the same amount of time that Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin placed his knee on the neck of George Floyd, ultimately leading to his death.
About 22 minutes into the game, Orlando City forward Chris Mueller had a prime opportunity to score after outrunning Inter Miami’s defense, but his attempt denied after a good save by Luis Robles, Miami’s 36-year-old goalkeeper.
The first half ended in a 0-0 tie, but the second half would see three goals scored in total. Inter Miami wasted no time attacking after halftime, scoring about 100 seconds into the second half. After working the ball down field, midfielder Víctor Ulloa set up a crossing pass to striker Juan Agudelo who redirected the ball into the goal with his left foot.
This gave Inter Miami a 1-0 lead at the 47′ mark, and gave the MLS is Back Tournament its first goal.
Inter Miami would stay aggressive, but the next goal came from Orlando City in the 70th minute. Nani, who started the game in the front, attacking row of Orlando City’s 4-4-2 formation, made a great run with the ball all the way from midfield down to near the corner. He delivered a cross that was then struck by a sliding Mueller, and the ball ricocheted off Robles and into the back of the net.
Mueller had already scored both of Orlando City’s regular season goals in 2020, and continued to prove his value as an offensive threat.
As the 90th minute passed, officials added a hefty ten minutes of stoppage time in an attempt to decide a winner.
In the 97th minutes, a cross bounced off an Inter Miami defender, and fell perfectly into the lap of an uncovered Nani. The team captain booted the ball into the back of the net with ease, lifting Orlando City to a 2-1 victory. After assisting on the team’s first goal, Nani also scored this go-ahead goal, helping carry Orlando City’s offense.
Orlando City earns an important three points in the loaded Group A. Inter Miami squandered the chance to at least earn a point off a draw, and it will be very hard for them to overcome this early deficit in the tournament’s largest group.
Philadelphia Union Squeak By New York City F.C. 1-0
Due to Florida’s hot and humid climate, all games will be played in the morning (9 A.M. ET) or at night (8 P.M., 9 P.M., or 10:30 P.M.) Thursday morning saw the tournament’s first early game, a 9 A.M. matchup between Eastern Conference rivals, New York City F.C. and the Philadelphia Union.
For the Union, it was the club’s first game since NBA superstar Kevin Durant purchased a minority stake in the team. Philadelphia was 0-1-1 in MLS’s young regular season, while New York City started 0-3-0. In fact, NYCFC was the only one of MLS’s 26 teams that failed to score a goal in their first two games.
Despite winning the time of possession, attempting more than twice as many shots and shots on target, and committing less fouls, New York City still could not find the back of the net in their matchup with the Union.
Both teams had a fair share of chances in the first half, but they were thwarted by good defense, good goalkeeping, and a couple of erratic shots that soared over the goal.
Less than three minutes into the second half, 21-year-old Argentinean striker Valentín Castellanos received a perfect cross, but from the angle he was at and with defenders on him, couldn’t do much but strike the ball directly at Andre Blake, Philadelphia’s goalkeeper.
Castellanos would strike the ball at Blake again in the 60th minute, and Jesús Medina was also able to take a shot for New York City off the rebound. The angle of Medina’s shot made a goal pretty unlikely, but he didn’t have many other options with the defense pressuring him.
Philadelphia began a resilient attack in the 62nd minute. An initial crossing pass was redirected towards the goal by 19-year-old Union midfielder Brenden Aaronson. While that shot was denied, the ball ended up back with Alejandro Bedoya, the sender of the first crossing pass. This time, Bedoya drilled the ball at Sean Johnson, New York City’s goalkeeper, scoring as the ball slipped out of Johnson’s grip.
New York City was far from out of the game, continuing to put up shots. Defender Anton Tinnerholm corralled a difficult pass to get a shot off, but was stuffed by Philadelphia’s defense.
NYCFC had a decent chance in the 89th minute with a free kick just outside the box. Gary Mackay-Steven was able to get a nice touch on the ball with his head, but couldn’t turn it into a goal or assist.
Mackay-Steven had another incredible opportunity at an equalizer, in stoppage time, but Blake stepped up to the ball to deny the chance at a tying goal.
The Union earn three points in Group A, tied with Orlando City for the lead in the group. NYCFC find themselves still searching for their first goal of the 2020 season, after four games played.
New England Revolution Downs Montreal Impact 1-0 to Take Group C Lead
The final game of the MLS is Back Tournament’s first two days took place on Thursday night. This game was the first to take place outside of Group A, as the New England Revolution and Montreal Impact play in Group C, alongside Toronto FC and D.C United.
Both teams could be considered underdogs when compared to Toronto FC and D.C. United, so winning this game would be pivotal for either participant to make it out of Group C. New England nabbed the Eastern Conference’s 7th and final playoff spot in 2019, with an 11-11-12 record and a -7 goal differential. Montreal finished 9th in the East, with a 12-17-5 record and -13 goal differential.
Toronto FC (13-10-11, +5 goal differential) and D.C United (13-10-11, +4 goal differential) both finished with 50 points last season, good for 4th and 5th in the East.
The Revolution had the first good scoring chance in the match, as attacking midfielder Carles Gil drilled a shot at Impact goalkeeper Clément Diop. Diop laid out to save the powerful shot from going in.
About 15 minutes later, Revolution midfielder Cristian Penilla used speed and finesse to create a quality shot that was just off target.
Moments later, New England forward Gustavo Bou received a leading pass, drawing Diop far out of the goal. Bou would get a shot at an open net from outside the box, but an Impact defender was able to corral the shot, which had lost momentum by the time it neared the goal.
The Revolution would get a couple more solid looks in the first half, with Bou nearly scoring twice. None of these shots proved successful however, as the game entered halftime as a 0-0 tie.
In the 55th minute, Carles Gil delivered a pass to Bou at the top of the box. With four defenders within just a few feet of the forward, Bou still got off a lightning fast shot aimed at the top of the net for an impressive goal.
New England held this 1-0 lead heading into six minutes of stoppage time. In the match’s final minute, the Impact had their best shot of the night. But Revolution goalkeeper Matt Turner laid out to make an incredible, game-sealing save.
The Impact held an advantage in time of possession, holding the ball for 56% of the game. But the Revolution were much more aggressive, attempting 18 shots with five landing on target. Montreal took just seven shots with a mere two on target.
The Revolution jump out to an early lead in Group C, while the Impact will need a bounce-back win to avoid falling out of contention early.
Updated Group Standings
- Orlando City SC (1-0-0) 3 Points (+1 goal differential)
- Philadelphia Union (1-0-0) 3 Points (+1 goal differential)
- Chicago Fire (0-0-0) 0 Points (N/A)
- Inter Miami (0-0-1) 0 Points (-1 goal differential)
- New York City FC (0-0-1) 0 Points (-1 goal differential)
Nashville SC was forced to withdraw from the tournament after players tested positive for COVID-19.
- Seattle Sounders (0-0-0) 0 Points (N/A)
- Vancouver Whitecaps FC (0-0-0) 0 Points (N/A)
- San Jose Earthquakes (0-0-0) 0 Points (N/A)
FC Dallas was forced to withdraw from the tournament after players tested positive for COVID-19
- New England Revolution (1-0-0) 3 Points (+1 goal differential)
- Toronto FC (0-0-0) 0 Points (N/A)
- D.C. United (0-0-0) 0 Points (N/A)
- Montreal Impact (0-0-1) 0 Points (-1 goal differential)
- Real Salt Lake (0-0-0) 0 Points (N/A)
- Sporting Kansas City (0-0-0) 0 Points (N/A)
- Colorado Rapids (0-0-0) 0 Points (N/A)
- Minnesota United FC (0-0-0) 0 Points (N/A)
- Atlanta United (0-0-0) 0 Points (N/A)
- FC Cincinnati (0-0-0) 0 Points (N/A)
- New York Red Bulls (0-0-0) 0 Points (N/A)
- Columbus Crew SC (0-0-0) 0 Points (N/A)
- LAFC (0-0-0) 0 Points (N/A)
- LA Galaxy (0-0-0) 0 Points (N/A)
- Houston Dynamo (0-0-0) 0 Points (N/A)
- Portland Timbers (0-0-0) 0 Points (N/A)