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MLS is Back Tournament: The top group stage matches to watch

One of the most enticing aspects of the MLS is Back Tournament is the number of juicy matchups the group draw produced, giving us some top derby clashes, and some other potentially entertaining matchups in the group stage.

When Los Angeles FC and the LA Galaxy were drawn together, it felt a little bit like the fix was in, but whether it was simply a product of luck or some doctoring by MLS, having a chance to see LAFC and the Galaxy do battle should be one of the highlights of the tournament.

Toronto FC-Montreal, Columbus-Cincinnati and Real Salt Lake-Colorado are some other top derbies that should help bring some added excitement to the group stage.

Here’s a closer look at the top group stage matchups for the MLS is Back Tournament:

LAFC vs. LA Galaxy

A pair of Mexican internationals may be missing, but El Trafico will still be a  must-watch affair in Disney World.

Both teams will be favored to advance out of Group F with plenty of talent to choose from throughout the tournament. The Galaxy has picked up two victories out of six league meetings with LAFC, but Bob Bradley’s side did eliminate the Galaxy from last season’s playoffs.

With Carlos Vela and Jonathan Dos Santos missing, Chicharito and Diego Rossi will be the likely go-to guys for both teams in this showdown.

Atlanta United vs. Red Bulls

Still a new rivalry compared to others, these two teams will be eager to knock off the other in their ninth league meeting all-time.

The Red Bulls has won five of the eight league matchups, however Atlanta United eliminated the Red Bulls in the 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs on route to a first-ever MLS Cup success. Josef Martinez’s absences leaves the Five Stripes in need of help offensively, with Pity Martinez and Ezequiel Barco the likely replacements.

As for the Red Bulls, Kaku will be the main spark in midfield while Daniel Royer brings experience to the attacking front. It may be safe to say whoever wins this matchup will win Group B.

Montreal Impact vs. Toronto FC

Greg Vanney’s side will be favored in this showdown after winning three of the last five head-to-head meetings with Montreal in league play. Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley are two key veteran cogs for TFC, who will be without exciting rookie Achara due to injury.

Montreal is aiming to continue making a strong impression under Thierry Henry in Florida after showing some positive signs in the Concacaf Champions League earlier this year. Victor Wanyama’s arrival from Tottenham should give the Impact a physical edge in midfield to go along nicely with Samuel Piette.

FC Cincinnati vs. Columbus Crew

The “Hell is Real” Derby may be new to MLS, but it should provide much excitement this month.

FC Cincinnati failed to win in either meeting last season in what ended up being a dismal debut season. Jaap Stam comes in as head coach to hopefully propel FC Cincy in the right direction, starting with this tournament. Jurgen Locadia and Yuya Kubo each scored in regular season play earlier this year and will be two marquee players for FC Cincy to lean on.

Caleb Porter’s Crew will fight for advancement into the knockout round, but first will focus on their newest rivals. Led by a dynamic midfield and veteran attacking options the Crew picked up four points from a possible six against FC Cincy in 2019.

NYCFC vs. Philadelphia Union

Group A will consist of six teams fighting for three places into the knockout round, but NYCFC and the Philadelphia Union are heavy favorites.

Ronny Deila led NYCFC to some success early in his tenure as head coach, seeing his team advance in the CCL. However, the team failed to win either of its opening two matches in MLS play and will begin group stage play in Orlando against an East Coast rival. Luckily for NYCFC, they’ve won five of the last six meetings with Philly including four-in-a-row.

The Philadelphia Union took major step forward in 2019, setting new club records and winning its first-ever home playoff game. Jim Curtin’s side will now look to win the MLS is Back Tournament, but first they will meet an NYCFC side they’ve struggled with down the years. Brenden Aaronson and Kacper Przybylko headline the attack for the Union, who like many other teams have a fresh and fit roster to choose from in Florida.

Orlando City vs. Inter Miami

The first-ever meeting between Florida teams Orlando City and Inter Miami should be fun to watch with both teams underdogs in Group A.

Orlando City hasn’t won a match in its last 10 attempts, failing to pick up a win in two regular-season matches in 2020. Oscar Pareja is still very new in his tenure in Orlando, but will be expected to knock off their new rivals in the opening match of the tournament. Nani is the marquee name for the Lions, who will look to be much better defensively after 2019’s struggles.

Inter Miami showed promise in its first two MLS matches, but failed to win in either of them. Diego Alonso’s side has a good mixture of MLS and international talent and now the goal will be to put it all together down in Florida. Rodolfo Pizarro impressed earlier this season and will look to propel Miami over Orlando and into a knockout place later this month.

Real Salt Lake vs. Rapids

These meetings won’t count towards the Rocky Mountain Cup, but it shouldn’t take the energy away from a historic rivalry.

Real Salt Lake is looking to spoil the party in Group D with Minnesota United and Sporting KC also in the mix. Freddy Juarez’s side pulled some shocks in 2019 before eventually being eliminated in the MLS Cup Playoffs. Now in his first full season as head coach, Juarez will look to see players like Corey Baird, Aaron Herrera, and Justen Glad take further steps forward in 2020.

Robin Fraser begins his first full season as head coach in Colorado after showing some positives with his new club in 2019. With many players returning this offseason, the goal will be to get off to a fast start in a group that is up for grabs. Kellyn Acosta will be the center of the Rapids midfield while Kei Kamara leads an attack which also features Andre Shinyashiki.

Sounders vs. Whitecaps

Two Cascadia Cup rivals will meet this month, looking to keep the same intensity down in Orlando.

Brian Schmetzer’s Seattle Sounders will be a favorite to win the entire tournament after lifting MLS Cup in 2019. Led by Jordan Morris, Raul Ruidiaz, and Cristian Roldan, the Sounders have an experienced roster who knows what it takes to be successful. The Sounders are 12-7-7 overall in league play against Vancouver and should have an edge in overall talent.

The Vancouver Whitecaps will find it tough in Group B with the Sounders as well as FC Dallas likely picked to advance. Marc Dos Santos’ side showed some promise in 2019, but will now need to be ready to go from the opening whistle. Lucas Cavallini and Fredy Montero headlines the attack while Ali Adnan looks to build off a strong campaign from a year ago.

What matchups are you eager to see at the MLS is Back Tournament? Are there any that didn’t make this list? Who is your favorite to win it all?

Share your thoughts below.

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