The wait is almost over. Yes, we have been without sports for months, sitting in misery, and wondering how we will survive this brutal pandemic. Through all this, MLS fans especially deserve praise due to the fact we all watched our respective teams play two games and then stood in anguish as the season was suspended. However, that’s all behind us now, and we are most definitely going to be rewarded.
Last week the MLSPA and the MLS agreed on a tournament to kick the season back off in July. Now, we have a CONFIRMED kick-off tournament for Major League Soccer starting on July 8 and running through August 11. Admittedly, the MLS has surprised me with the tournament format, going the whole “nine yards” with a group stage, knockout rounds, regular-season points on the line, and the winner will be guaranteed a spot in the 2021 Concacaf Champions League. All 26 teams will be there, which means the boys in red and black will be out for blood, and honestly, I expect them to get it.
There are two sides of the bracket: East and West. With the eastern side being significantly weaker than the western side, Atlanta United will have a grand opportunity to go far. The most important part of tournaments like this is the group stage. It is a three-game stretch in which Atlanta will play the other teams that have been drawn in their group, earning points for the games they win. The groups have teams that are seeded 1-4. Atlanta, of course, received the one seed in their group. The five stripes have drawn FC Cincinatti, New York Red Bulls, and Columbus Crew SC. The following is a breakdown of Atlanta United’s group and my prediction for how the group will finish.
4th seed Columbus Crew SC
With a win over NYCFC to start their season and a draw to the Seattle Sounders, Columbus began their season respectably. With plenty of power in the attack in Gyasi Zardes and newcomer Lucas Zelarayan who was acquired from Tigres over the summer, the Crew will be looking to build on their start. Defensively, the Crew have two very experienced Ghanaian defenders in Jonathan Mensah and Harrison Afful, while also adding experienced American Darlington Nagbe in his holding midfield position. With Coach Caleb Porter likely wanting to press high and create turnovers, Atlanta will need to be quick in their decision making on the ball and look to strike at times on the counter.
3rd Seed New York Red Bulls
Ah, the Red Bulls. I hate the Red Bulls. The Red Bulls have not lost to Atlanta in the regular season yet, but even though Chris Arma’s men have had United’s number, I do not expect them to lose here. With no proven players on the squad and Bradley Wright-Phillips out the door, I firmly believe United will come out with all three points
2nd Seed FC Cincinnati
With a loss to Atlanta United and Red Bulls to start the season, Cincy is not in the best of positions. I would be shocked if they were among the two teams from this group to go through to the knockout stage. While new coach Jaap Stam could turn them around, it is unlikely that his effect will be felt this early on in his tenure. With a shaky defense and no proven goalscorer currently on the squad, things do not look particularly well for the expansion side.
Last but not least, my prediction for the group is as follows:
1. Atlanta United
2. Columbus Crew
3. New York Red Bulls
4. FC Cincinnati