Major League Soccer’s 54-game MLS is Back Tournament, which kicks off next month in Orlando, will feature several rivalry games, including the inaugural Orlando City-Inter Miami contest and a revival of the relatively new but already intriguing LA derby between the Galaxy and Los Angeles FC.
Formatted much like the 1994 World Cup, which included steamy afternoon matches at the old Citrus Bowl, the MLS is Back Tournament represents the league’s return to the field following a nearly-four-month break necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic. The group stage begins July 8 and will eliminate 10 of the 26 teams. The remaining 16 clubs will enter the knockout rounds starting July 25.
The tournament winner will be awarded a chunk of the $1.1 million prize pool along with a berth in the 2021 Concacaf Champions League.
The MLS is Back Tournament’s group stage will consist entirely of intra-conference games. These matches will count toward the 2020 regular season standings, so it made sense to ensure that the first-round games in Orlando mirrored contests already on the schedule. Each team had played twice before the league went on hiatus in March.
MLS seeded six clubs: the host (Orlando City); the four 2019 MLS Cup semifinalists (Seattle Sounders, Toronto FC, Atlanta United and Los Angeles FC); and since one more Western Conference seed was required, last season’s third-place team (Real Salt Lake). The league arbitrarily dropped Inter Miami into Orlando’s group prior to the draw, which includes one group of six teams. Each member of that group, Group A, will play three of the other five teams based on a predetermined formula.
The top two finishers in each group, along with the four best third-place teams, will move on to the knockout stage.
Here’s a closer look at the groups:
Orlando City, Inter Miami, New York City FC, Philadelphia Union, Chicago Fire, Nashville SC
The tournament’s opener will be MLS’s first Florida derby in 19 years (RIP Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny). NYCFC and Philadelphia are the only two playoff teams from 2019 in the group. Nashville has shifted from the Western Conference to the Eastern for this tournament and the rest of the 2020 season. It’ll likely wind up there anyway once expansion teams Austin FC, Sacramento Republic and St. Louis come aboard.
Toronto FC, New England Revolution, Montreal Impact, D.C. United
Group C serves up a 401 Derby between Toronto and Montreal, and a rematch of last season’s wacky first-round playoff game between TFC and DCU, which ended in a 5-1 extra-time win for the Reds.
Atlanta United, FC Cincinnati, New York Red Bulls, Columbus Crew
Columbus and Cincinnati will renew the Hell is Real Derby in the Florida heat, while Atlanta and New York have developed a bit of their own history since the former entered the league in 2017. Atlanta has won just one of eight MLS matches against NYRB, but that one victory sent United to the 2018 MLS Cup final.
Seattle Sounders, FC Dallas, Vancouver Whitecaps, San Jose Earthquakes
Seattle and Dallas will reprise their wild extra-time playoff game from last season, which sent the Sounders on their way to the title. Vancouver and San Jose both missed the playoffs last year.
Real Salt Lake, Sporting Kansas City, Colorado Rapids, Minnesota United
Seeded RSL faces the only three Western teams to go 2-0-0 before the pandemic pause, including Rocky Mountain Cup neighbor Colorado and rival SKC.
Los Angeles FC, LA Galaxy, Houston Dynamo, Portland Timbers
Naturally, the draw gives us the season’s first El Trafico between the two L.A. clubs, while Portland and Houston are tournament-savvy, given their recent success in the MLS playoffs and U.S. Open Cup.
MLS didn’t announce how teams will be placed into the bracket. The semifinals will be Aug. 5-6 and the final is Aug. 11.
The round-of-16 games and beyond will proceed directly to penalty kicks if they’re still tied after 90 minutes.