We’re midway through the group stage of the MLS Is Back tournament. We’ve seen crazy games and dull games, surprises and disappointments. Overall, it’s been a success.
One of the fun parts is seeing new players get opportunities to step up as managers navigate absences and knockout circumstances. Let’s run through some breakout contributors.
Ayo Akinola, Toronto FC
With Jozy Altidore dealing with injury issues, the 20-year-old Akinola started TFC’s first two games at striker and put up five goals. He picked up two as Toronto blew a lead to D.C. United and drew 2-2, and then scored their final three goals in a wild 4-3 win over Montreal. Having played just 298 career MLS minutes before this tournament, Akinola came out of nowhere to dominate in Orlando.
He’s scored some tap-ins, to be sure, but he has shown some hold-up ability and calmness in tight areas. TFC’s creators (primarily Alejandro Pozuelo and Pablo Piatti) need a forward who makes the right runs and beats his defenders, and Akinola has filled the role perfectly. Altidore will likely take his spot back at some point, but Akinola couldn’t have played any better in his absence.
In addition: Shoutout Richie Laryea, who has played 130 minutes in two tournament matches at left back, scoring in the Montreal game. He bombs up the wing and contributes to TFC’s red-hot attack.
Memo Rodriguez, Houston Dynamo
In Houston’s first game, a back-and-forth 3-3 draw LAFC, Rodriguez played in the midfield alongside Matias Vera and Boniek Garcia and showed a versatility we didn’t know he had. He scored a pair of first-half goals as a late runner behind the front three and covered ground defensively in the Dynamo’s 4-3-3.
It seemed as though he would be relegated to the bench as Alberth Elis and Darwin Quintero seemed to hold a grip on the wing spots — and Quintero is likely too much of a defensive liability to shift into the midfield — but Memo has carved out a role for himself in the midfield. He’ll have to grow as a playmaker in order to fend off Tomas Martinez, who did not get off the bench against LAFC.
Chris Mueller, Orlando City SC
Orlando have been impressive in the early goings of the tournament, winning their first two games and quickly securing a spot in the next stage. There was a time when Orlando coaches were hesitant to put Mueller on the field from the start of games despite his solid production, but those days should be over, as Mueller has been a driving force behind OCSC’s tourney success.
The 23-year-old has three goals in two games. Add in his goal in an 11-minute sub appearance before the March lockdown, and Mueller is a Golden Boot contender. (Without Carlos Vela and Josef Martinez, the scoring race is anybody’s ballgame.) Mueller is dogged on the ball and presses well, useful alongside Nani and the underperforming Dom Dwyer.
Frankie Amaya, FC Cincinnati
It was Amaya’s goal that won Cincinnati their game against Atlanta United, and it’s been Amaya who has been the key in FCC’s midfield. Along with the rest of the squad, he had a difficult go of it as they got blitzed by Columbus 4-0 in the first game, but the midfield has shown good signs, and they performed in the win over Atlanta.
Next to Haris Medunjanin, Amaya needs to defend, and he has proven capable. Medunjanin is a traffic cone who knows how to pass. Amaya is a clever passer and competent defender, keeping him on the field and Cincinnati in games. At 19, he will continue to grow.
Where to bet MLS is Back tournament in the US
In the US, you can legally bet on soccer in New Jersey, Indiana and Pennsylvania.