MLS, in true MLS fashion, probably rigged the draw for its return-to-play tournament. They created some predictable matchups and rivalries. We’ll get an El Clasico in the group stage, as well as a Montreal-Toronto rivalry and Orlando-Miami match for Florida. But there will be no Seattle-Portland or New York Derby, so perhaps they didn’t craft their preferred groups as much as people think.
Whether they rigged the groups or not, we get to look forward to specific games now, which is fun. The full draw is here. Let’s take a quick look at each group and the most interesting matches in each.
Group A (the six-team group)
This group is unique in that each team will not play each other. Every team will play three games, based on where they ended up in the random seeding.
NYCFC vs. Philadelphia Union: These are the best two teams in the group, and they did happen to be drawn against each other. (No team in this group was unlucky enough to be drawn against both.) Philly entered this season touting a mobile, high-octane system with a high-level backline and midfield. Their attack, which could lack firepower against the best, was the concern. NYCFC and their new coach Ronny Deila will hope they will play better than they did in early March, when they lost both of their regular season games.
Orlando City SC vs. Inter Miami: Here we have the match MLS preferred (and leaked before the draw). MLS likes trying to drum up its own rivalries, and this was a natural one, especially given that Orlando’s rivalry with Atlanta has been thoroughly one-sided. These are two teams in transition that would have been on the fringe of the playoffs in a normal season.
Nashville SC vs. Chicago Fire: Let’s be honest: If this was one of MLS’s morning games, you might not be motivated to set an alarm (depending on your time zone). But there is a lot of uncertainty with these teams and it will be interesting to see how their attacking players fare. These are newer players with something to prove. Nashville’s Hany Mukhtar showed some promise in March.
This is a Western Conference group, with a Cascadia rivalry and a couple of younger teams. At last check, it had received the least number of votes in MLS’s poll for best group.
Seattle Sounders vs. Vancouver Whitecaps: A rivalry! The ‘Caps aren’t much of a threat, though, and the Sounders remain one of the league’s best. I picked Vancouver to finish last in the Western Conference and Seattle second. Still, everyone loves a good Cascadia clash.
FC Dallas vs. San Jose Earthquakes: The Quakes are still coached by Matias Almeyda, and carried plenty of intrigue entering the season. FC Dallas play their young guys and are still figuring out exactly how to put their team together (and what role Paxton Pomykal will play). A pair of fringe West teams.
An East group, with three playoff teams and Montreal. It is probably underrated in its difficulty.
Toronto FC vs. Montreal Impact: Thierry Henry’s Impact showed some tactical promise in March. Montreal aren’t supremely talented, but this Canadian rivalry tends to be intense, and Toronto is a fun team to watch.
New England Revolution vs. D.C. United: The ACL injury to Paul Arriola hurts (though there are reports that Arriola is plotting a 2020 comeback), but D.C. projected well entering the season. They face another structurally solid playoff-caliber team in New England.
Group D features four West teams that know each other pretty well.
Colorado Rapids vs. Real Salt Lake: It’s another rivalry, though not quite as easy a national TV sell. The Rapids have a chance to take steps forward under new coach Robin Fraser. Young RSL will look to 18-year-old attacking newcomer Jeizon Ramirez as they try to put together a contender.
Minnesota United vs. Sporting KC: Minnesota defends well and seemed like a possible top-four team in the West. SKC fell apart last year, but their attack is exciting and their personnel is improved (though still a bit old).
The Atlanta group! It shouldn’t be too difficult for the Five Stripes, who have had months to consider how they’ll move forward without Josef Martinez.
Atlanta United vs. Columbus Crew: Ezequiel Barco was playing well to start the year, so Frank de Boer and co. will hope that continues. I picked the new-look Crew to win MLS Cup.
New York Red Bulls vs. FC Cincinnati: I was not high on the Red Bulls entering the year, who continued to lose talent and now will rely on unproven players. Cincinnati will debut new coach Jaap Stam.
This is the LA-LAFC group, and likely the toughest.
LAFC vs. LA Galaxy: It’s still uncertain whether Carlos Vela will play. If he does, we’ll get the hyped Chicharito-Vela attacking matchup. Vela has every right to opt out (his wife is pregnant), but from a soccer perspective it would be great if he played.
Houston Dynamo vs. Portland Timbers: The Timbers seemed likely to make the playoffs in preseason, and that optimism remains. We’re still waiting for the full Chara compliment, as hopes are high for new winger Yimmi Chara, brother of Diego. The Dynamo are trying to win in what could be their final year with Alberth Elis and Mauro Manotas.