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MLS is Back Tournament Primer

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It’s been over three months since the NJ sports betting world came to a sudden halt for the coronavirus. We’ve seen the world changed drastically since early March and the return of league competition will bring back a semblance of normalcy.

After some creative decision making and nail-biting labor discussions, Major League Soccer will be the first major men’s league to return to the United States. Yes, the National Women’s Soccer League will be the first major professional league overall to return so don’t forget that.

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MLS will return with a group-stage tournament and a chance for teams to earn standings points with three games. The top 16 to advance will join the knock-out bracket and vie for the tournament championship. Not sure if this will count as a US Open Cup title or offer the winner a berth in the CONCACAF Champions League.

The league held the draw Thursday, creating six groups of play, three in each conference. Many of them feature major rivalries and tantalizing matchups. While there are no odds right now (likely those will appear when the schedule gets formally announced), here’s a chance to take a look at the groups, format, and get some insight to prepare wagers.

Group Stage Play

MLS is Back will feature five groups of four and one of six in the Eastern Conference side. Expansion team Nashville SC will join Group A and finish their season on the Eastern table. 

Each team will play three games at Walt Disney World in sunny Florida. There will be one game in the early morning and two at night. Anyone who’s been to Disney World in the summer knows daytime means either sweltering heat or surprise downpours that blow across the peninsula. Neither option is ideal for high-level (or any other level) soccer.

The three group games will decide the 16 teams to advance to the bracket. The top two in each group will qualify, along with the four best third-place teams. The seeding for the knockout stages has yet to be revealed.

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The Groups – Eastern Conference

Group A consists of six teams: host Orlando SC, Chicago Fire, NYCFC, Philadelphia Union, along with debutantes Inter Miami and Nashville SC.

This is the lone group that will not be a round-robin, thus it’s possible two teams can tie on points without facing each other. The tiebreaking procedure will be announced later.

Three of the four established clubs will get to play both expansion teams in the draw released by MLS: Chicago, Orlando, and Philadelphia. All three of these teams will play NYCFC, who won the East’s regular season.

Despite the draw, expect NYCFC to be established as the group favorite. While clubs will train in Orlando before the tournament starts, the home team should have some advantage of being accustomed to the unique climate.

The Union is looking to build on their historic 2019 season with 16 wins and their first playoff victory, while the Fire are looking to bounce back from just missing the playoffs last fall. 

Who can be a difference-maker? Look to Andre Blake, the Union goalkeeper. The Jamaican is used to the tropical heat and humidity and has been solid at the backend for a young, dynamic offense. He’s played well in the Gold Cup so he’s comfortable in this format. 

Group C might be the toughest in the sextet. League champs Toronto FC was the seeded team and will face rivals Montreal Impact, along with 2019 playoff teams DC United and the New England Revolution. These teams have some notable names and will likely produce very entertaining matches.

Toronto brings the deepest and most star-studded side in the group. With Wayne Rooney heading back to England, DC United has some question marks. Montreal and New England have potency but weren’t very consistent last year.

A name to watch must be 2019 MLS Newcomer of the Year Carles Gil who led the Revs with 10 goals and 14 assists. He missed the first two games of the 2020 campaign with a foot issue. If he’s on form, he can stay with the firepower in this group and push his team to the knockout stages. 

Group F features two big names in Atlanta United and Red Bull NY. It also features the Buckeye State rivals Columbus Crew SC and FC Cincinnati. 

Atlanta has two wins in two games this year, picking up where they left off last season. Red Bull should advance with them, given their veteran makeup. It would take an upset or two for anyone else to make the round of 16.

If Atlanta has a weakness, it might be playing away from the booming Mercedes Benz Dome where they coasted through the playoffs. Last year they went 6-10-3 on the road, and gave up three or more goals in many of those losses.

The Groups – Western Conference

Seattle Sounders may have gotten the best draw of the seeded teams. The league runners-up bring a loaded team across the country and face Dallas FC, San Jose Earthquakes, and Vancouver Whitecaps in Group B.

Avoiding Northwest rivals Portland takes some shine away from the group. However, it does mean a playoff rematch, as Seattle dispatched Dallas in the Western quarters last year. San Jose and Vancouver both missed the playoffs. Seattle is the only one in the quartet to win more than three road games in 2019.

The most recognizable name in the group is likely Seattle’s Jordan Morris. The young forward has played for the Men’s National Team and showed some finishing panache when not hurt. This tournament could be his ascent to national superstardom.

Group D features Real Salt Lake, Sporting KC, Colorado Rapids, and Minnesota United. Four sides that aren’t well known but have a great opportunity to make a name in this tournament.

Real Salt Lake will be the group favorites, featuring a strong side that won their way into the West semis last year. Minnesota did well in their first MLS year and will challenge for the group crown. Sporting KC and Colorado will have something to prove and a lot to gain.

For sports bettors, this may be the best group to watch. None of these clubs have big national profiles. There’s a lot to learn from these matches that could prove key in handicapping MLS action once the regular season resumes in August.

Group F will have the “El Trafico” rivalry between the LA clubs. Portland Timbers and Houston Dynamo join the Galaxy and LAFC in the “Group of Death” on the Western side. These games will be very entertaining and on at night.

This is likely one of the two groups that will only see the top two advance. The LA clubs are really really good. Houston has struggled for consistency since flipping conferences while Portland looks to build on their playoff appearance in 2019.

LAFC loves to push pace and score but they also give up goals. While they won the crosstown match in the West semis 5-3, they dropped the conference final 3-1 to Seattle. Before play stopped, they hosted Philadelphia in a very entertaining 3-3 draw with some wild goals. 

The schedule will be announced in the coming days, along with (hopefully) prices at the major books. We’ll give you recap and insight when that happens.

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