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MLS is Back Tournament: Atlanta United headlines Group E, the toughest group in the field

Simply put, Group E is one for the taking and there is a scenario where each team could make a case for itself in the MLS is Back tournament.

The odds-on favorite going in will be Atlanta United, but no matter what happens for the team in 2020 it will always go down as the year headlined by Josef Martínez’s absence. While there isn’t a Joeseph, there is a Pity Martínez suiting up for the Five Stripes and it could be argued that he is the group’s most dangerous player.

For the New York Red Bulls, the offseason saw them save to spend another day. It is too soon to know how big of an impact it will make when the transfer market gets back in full swing, but the tournament will afford head coach Chris Armas an opportunity to challenge Atlanta with its experience, and precisely identify where the team can spend its Kemar Lawrence departure revenue.

Group E will tout plenty of interest from the state of Ohio, where the two teams with the most questions to answer reside. The new, but already bitter Hell is Real derby saw the Columbus Crew get the last laugh in 2019, which was a consolation prize in what was an extremely disappointing campaign. The Crew brings an exciting new DP and a renewed sense of confidence, and the tournament could be affirmation that a healthy Crew is ready to contend again.

It should not be a surprise FC Cincinnati is the team with the most to prove. The new-look team found a way to be productive during the COVID-19 shutdown, and brought in a new coach who will be debuting in Orlando in hopes of establishing something stylish to build on for the future.

Here’s a closer look at Group E:


July 11

Atlanta United vs New York Red Bulls, 8 p.m. (FOX & TUDN)

FC Cincinnati vs Columbus Crew, 10:30 p.m. (FS1 & TUDN)

July 16

Atlanta United vs FC Cincinnati, 9 a.m. (ESPN/ESPN Deportes)

Columbus Crew vs New York Red Bulls, 10:30 p.m. (FS1 & TUDN)

July 21

Atlanta United vs Columbus Crew, 8 p.m. (TUDN)

July 22

FC Cincinnati vs New York Red Bulls, 8 p.m. (ESPN/ESPN Deportes)

Atlanta United 

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Gonzalo “Pity” Martinez, Miles Robinson, Ezequiel Barco, Brad Guzan, Emerson Hyndman

MISSING PLAYERS: Josef Martínez (ACL),

OUTLOOK: The only team in the bunch to win both of its first two regular season games, Atlanta United is still the favorite to win the group even without its star striker. Notching 2-1 wins over Nashville SC and FC Cincinnati to open the season, the through line has been Ezequiel Barco getting on the board in both games. It is unclear who will step into the center forward role but you still like Atlanta’s odds of finding the net steadily from the wings when the equally creative and shot-happy Barco and Pity Martinez are manning them.

There is a bit of uncertainty in regards to how well Atlanta prepared itself for any holes to fill. With its 2020 wins coming over two of the league’s non-challengers, and big departures headlined by Darlington Nagbe, Julian Gressel, and Leandro González Pírez, it is not a given that Atlanta will present the quality it is expected to.

Columbus Crew

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Lucas Zelaryan, Gyasi Zardes, Pedro Santos

MISSING PLAYERS: TBD (unidentified positive COVID-19 tested player)

OUTLOOK: After running into major injury issues last season which head coach Caleb Porter deemed “basically survival”, the new and improved Crew opened the season with a win over NYCFC and a draw against defending MLS Cup Champion Seattle Sounders. Those results should give a positive outlook to the team as league newcomer and designated player Lucas Zelaryan instantly made an impact and opened his MLS goal account in his very first appearance in the midfield. If the Crew can restart just as strong, it has a real chance at taking Group E as either of its first two opponents would be favored if they found themselves in the group.

An unknown heading into Sunday’s opening match against FC Cincinnati is the status of the Crew’s unnamed first team player who tested positive for COVID-19.

FC Cincinnati 

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Yuya Kubo, Siem de Jong, Allan Cruz


OUTLOOK: After a complete off-season overhaul that resulted in losses against the New York Red Bulls and Atlanta United to open the season, FC Cincinnati will be hoping its identity crisis is over by the time group stage ends. There will be two potential difference making people involved for the tournament who were not present to open the season in the form of dutch playmaker Siem de Jong and head coach Jaap Stam.

The top-to-bottom changes should have FCC fans excited for the future, the reality is the tournament will be more about Stam’s vision for the future and the team would be lucky to find itself collecting points in the process.

Note: League newcomer and DP striker Jürgen Locadia is expected to be sidelined with a thigh injury for a couple of weeks, but is not missing from the tournament.

New York Red Bulls 

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Kaku, Aaron Long, Daniel Royer, Kyle Duncan


OUTLOOK: Nobody is looking at the Red Bulls as a heavyweight coming into the tournament, and that can work to their advantage. Under the leadership of Chris Armas, and with a comparably easier route to the knockout stage, you could see New York getting by on experience alone. The team opened the season with a 3-2 win over FC Cincinnati and a 1-1 draw with Real Salt Lake. Of the four goals amassed in the two games, they all came from four different players which is too early to tell if the team can successfully share attacking duties or if it is in need of a target man.


1. Atlanta United. The best team in the group line by line. The Martínez-sized hole in the attack can be covered against the group opponents and will hope to fund a rhythm with a go-to striker by the time the knockout round begins.

2. New York Red Bulls. Devoid of any big offseason signings, Armas is doubling down and carrying out a vision that shows stability that could not be said for Columbus or Cincinnati.

3. Columbus Crew. The Crew would be in the second spot if not for the uncertainty surrounding its roster. If Caleb Porter’s top players are healthy and available, the Crew could make a serious run at Atlanta United for the top spot in the group.

4. FC Cincinnati. Even with his worldly experience, it is hard to see Stam crafting his way out of the group stage, and the game-by-game nature of tournament will not afford him time for seeing out a drawn out experiment if the team can’t find itself on the other side of the scorelines quickly.

How do you see Group E finishing?

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