MLS and Orlando City soccer is back!
Despite growing concerns about safety in the “bubble” at the Walt Disney World Resort amid positive COVID-19 tests running rampant among a pair of teams, Major League Soccer is set to finally return as the first pro men’s sport in the country after the pandemic shut the league in early March.
The tournament will march on without one of the league’s 26 teams after FC Dallas was forced to withdraw from the tournament due to 10 players and one staff member testing positive for the Coronavirus. The status of a second club, Nashville SC, is also up in the air heading into the tournament after five players tested positive with three more potential cases yet-to-be confirmed.
All 50+ matches, including Orlando City‘s opening match against Inter Miami CF on Wednesday evening to kick off the tournament will air nationally across the platforms of ESPN, FOX, and Univision.
Validity of the tournament is debatable now that Dallas has been excluded from action, but each team will play three group stage matches that, as of now, will count towards to the regular season standings, assuming the league is able to carry out plans to return to play in home markets after the MLS is Back Tournament concludes on August 11.
The top two clubs from each group (as well as the third place finisher in Group A’s six-team pot) and the best-finishing third place club from each conference will move on to the knockout rounds (these games will not count as official), with the winning team of the tournament being awarded a spot in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League.
So with that, let’s dive into what this all means for Orlando City. As mentioned above, the Lions officially resume their 2020 season on Wednesday in the first-ever match-up against new in-state rivals Inter Miami CF at 8 p.m. on ESPN.
Where we left off
The Lions are winless so far in the new campaign, having settled for a draw in their opening match against Real Salt Lake back on February 28 before falling 2-1 on the road to the Colorado Rapids in their last match pre-pandemic.
If you’re wondering how the team faired in that pair of games, you can read my tactical breakdowns of the Real Salt Lake game here and the Colorado game here.
One point through two games has the Lions 9th in the Eastern Conference standings. A strong showing in the group stages can give Orlando some strong footing heading into the rest of the regular season — which could potentially land around an additional 18-20 games, at least.
Where we are now
Orlando City played those team games without their captain, Nani, who was suspended for the first two games of the season from an incident at the end of the 2019 season. He, along with the rest of his City teammates (as far as we know because as of the time I’m writing this preview, Orlando City has not released a tournament roster), will be back on the field for Wednesday’s opening match against Miami and the rest of this tournament, whatever finish the Lions are able to fight and claw their way to.
What we don’t know: how fit and ready to play the team is. The Lions, like everybody else, haven’t played a match since early-March, so if you thought those early-season MLS games are traditionally lacking in fitness and quality, then this tournament is going likely going to make those games look like UEFA Champions League.
Head coach Oscar Pareja spoke to the media through a virtual press conference on Tuesday and noted that fitness will likely be a problem, despite the club having been putting a lot of focus on the issue over the last few weeks, as the Lions have been holding two training sessions a day since entering the bubble on June 25.
“At this point, I see our team in a good situation. I see them fit, and now obviously, we have the challenges of not having too many games or not having games to prepare,” he said. “But we’re putting that aside and trying to focus on what is coming. Fitness wise, I think we’ll be fine.”
Like I mentioned above, we also don’t officially know what Orlando City’s roster looks like, but the club did say last week that everybody on the roster is inside of the bubble and available to play in the tournament. That would also include forward Dom Dwyer, who also missed those first two games of the season due to injury. While we won’t know for sure until the lineup comes out some time after 7 p.m., we should be able to expect a full-strength lineup from the Lions for their big rivalry match on national TV.
What we do know: the Lions are hungry and ready to prove themselves to the league on a large stage. The first game against Miami will be a massive test for the squad, which is still attempting to find its form under Pareja, but surviving Group A and making a push through the knockout rounds are whole new challenges in themselves.
After Miami, the Lions will face New York City FC on Tuesday, July 14 (10:30 p.m.) and then finish out the group stage against Nashville SC (for now) on Monday, July 20 (9 a.m.).
The Philadelphia Union and Chicago Fire are also in Group A, rounding out a rather tough, yet conquerable, group for the Lions. Though the odds of advances from Group A are the toughest in the tournament, having the top three teams advance (with the potential of a fourth) makes Group A a challenge that Orlando City is capable of handling.
Can Orlando City actually win this tournament?
I say that with absolutely no confidence whatsoever because this is MLS, this is MLS in Florida, this is MLS after a four-month break, and this is MLS in a one-off tournament that we will likely never see again. Literally anything can happen.
Orlando City could, indeed, do the thing and actually win this tournament, just as Chicago or Nashville could too. Or maybe LAFC (minus Carlos Vela, who opted out of playing) could do what they did last season and dominate the league on the way to their second club trophy (although, let’s be real, this tournament will only matter as a real trophy if your favorite club wins — so with that said, Orlando is definitely going to win and the rest of the league will pretend until the end of time like it never actually happened).
Essentially, all bets are off when you’re playing games in front of no fans at 9 a.m. in the lovely swampy Florida summer.
What we do know for sure is that since this is MLS, wackiness will be off the charts in the MLS Is Back tournament.
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