New York City FC and the Philadelphia Union went into the 2020 MLS season with high expectations, looking to build on the impressive regular seasons they put together a year ago. Both stumbled out of the blocks though, failing to record a win in the opening weeks of the campaign before COVID-19 led MLS to shut down for three months.
The two Eastern Conference foes have a chance for a fresh start now, and a chance to prove they’re worthy of their preseason hype as they head into the MLS is Back Tournament as favorites in the six-team Group A.
“Overall it will be good for the boys to get back out and playing games,” NYCFC head coach Ronny Deila said about the tournament. “We only got a few games under our belt this season [including Champions League] so I think this new opportunity is good for everyone. We’re excited for Orlando and it’s all about getting the players as fit as possible for the tournament.”
“The players have been waiting to get back onto the field for so long and now they have that in a new and unique competition,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “The chance to get out there and play is always positive, but I think this tournament will bring out the best in everyone especially with over $1 million prize money and a spot in next season’s Concacaf Champions League at stake.”
Six teams will take part in Group A with the opening match seeing Orlando City and Inter Miami square off at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex. In addition to the two Florida clubs, NYCFC, Philadelphia Union, Chicago Fire, and Nashville SC rounded out the lone group with six participants.
The matches will begin on July 8th with each team playing three group-stage matches. The top two teams from each group, along with the top-four third place finishers, will advance to the knockout stage which will include a Round of 16, quarterfinals, semifinals, and final.
Orlando City and Inter Miami enter as the two Florida-based teams in the competition, but while they may feel some home-field advantage, they are also two teams that failed to register a win when the season began in March.
“We were drawn in a group with great teams, but we’re convinced in what we’re doing and what we’re aiming for,” Inter Miami midfielder Matias Pellegrini said. “I trust this team and I’m sure we’re going to do well. We’ve been doing things correctly and we’re on the right track, we want to make history and win this for our fans.”
“It feels good to be home,” Orlando’s EVP of Soccer Luiz Muzzi said. “I don’t think there’s a whole lot of advantage there. We’re playing against great teams and they’re all prepared. We’d like to have fans and we know our fans are following us. But everybody has a strong team. We’re just glad to be back and looking forward to starting.”
Each team will be able to make five substitutions in the World Cup-style tournament, which should benefit teams in the Florida heat. It also gives coaches new ideas to consider especially in the dying moments of matches, whether they’re piling on pressure for a goal or hanging onto a slim lead. The coming weeks of training will be crucial for players and coaching staffs alike in order to get back to normalcy prior to the July 8 kickoff.
“It’s a new level of intensity from the players, a new level of intensity from the coaching staff, the technical work is short and sharp, and then you still have to work on your fitness base,” Nashville SC captain and midfielder Dax McCarty said. “You still have to get that fitness base back because it’s going to be a very shortened preseason, we’ll have to go through all of it again to make sure we’re fit and ready to go, and we’re going to have to try and minimize injuries as much as possible by being fit.”