Editor’s Note: This article contains views on the current situation in Florida as it pertains to COVID-19 (coronavirus) cases being on the rise. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the individual expressing them, and are not necessarily the views of Hudson River Blue, SB Nation, or Vox Media.
We are officially one week away from the MLS is Back Tournament. And boy, it’s gonna be a rocky road.
Since the initial announcement of the tournament on June 10, things have truly taken a turn for the worst in the state of Florida — where the tournament will take place — as it pertains to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic, with thousands of new cases being reported since the state’s easing of lockdown orders over the past several weeks. This dramatic turn of events has put the MLSIB Tournament under heavy scrutiny on the Twittersphere from both pundits and many of the league’s fanbases.
The entire situation is messier than Times Square after New Years. But, as of the writing of this article, the show is scheduled to go on. So, let’s talk about it. All of it.
The Hudson River Blue crew have come together to discuss the current situation in the Sunshine State, as well as offer their own individual predictions on how NYCFC can progress through the tournament should it be played.
1.) Let’s tackle the elephant in the room right away: how do you feel about the team travelling to Orlando for the tournament considering the rise of COVID-19 cases in the state of Florida? Do you feel there is any way to ensure that things go off without a hitch? Or is it doomed to fail?
Rafael Noboa y Rivera: It’s such a bad idea. The infection rate is skyrocketing, the state government is refusing to do anything to combat it, and since the federal government has utterly abdicated its responsibilities here, that means nothing’s being done to fight the infection.
There’s only one responsible thing to do here: cancel the tournament.
There’s no way to ensure things go off without a hitch. Not now. It’s too late for that. We’re talking about holding a tournament right now in a state that’s leading the world in the number of COVID-19 cases diagnosed each day. It’s absolute folly.
Connor Donohue: I wrote an article on this a couple of days ago (shameless plug). I still believe the tournament is going to happen. I understand why people want it to happen and I understand those against it. I’m at the point where you need to put your head down, fight through whatever issues come, and finish the tournament. I think looking at a secondary location would’ve been a good idea but it’s too late now.
Calvin Daniel: Well, considering how COVID-19 cases AND hospitalizations are on the rise in Florida, it does provide some trepidation on how successful keeping this tournament going through its entirety will actually be. I don’t think there is truly any way to ensure this tournament doesn’t get derailed, but I think we all have to accept the reality of the investment that’s involved in the league and why they have to try to put forth a product on the field. The bubble idea is better than having teams travel all over the country in terms of limiting infection, so I guess I can give them credit for that. I wouldn’t say doomed to fail, but COVID-19 infections are just a reality we all have to face right now.
Nicholas Robbins: While it is very true that cases are rising in Florida, I feel as long as the players are smart about it, they should be fine. I don’t mean entirely locking down, just more of a take extreme precautions when out and about. I think if the MLS is smart about it and contain the players to a “bubble” we should be fine, four of the top five European leagues are playing and doing fine.
Christian Smith: I completely understand the concerns of fans and players about going to Florida right now to play sports in the midst of a pretty serious situation. And there really is no easy answer to this. With that said, I’m in favor of the tournament carrying on so long as the proper safety precautions are being carried out and the players are treated fairly. Right now, there’s a huge kerfuffle about the food that is being served, so that doesn’t bode well for the latter point. Hopefully, MLS rights that wrong soon.
General consensus: We all have our concerns. Rightfully so. But with some teams already in Orlando awaiting kickoff, we’ve passed the point of no return. The show goes on. For now
2.) The start times for some of the fixtures are pretty out there with NYCFC playing games as early as 9 AM and as late as 10:30 PM. What kind of effect do you see this having on the teams competing? Does it lend to entertaining — albeit sloppy — games? Or will they by and large be lethargic snooze fests?
Raf: I think that depends on how seriously teams take this tournament. I think it’s going to be a mix. I’m hoping for entertaining and sloppy, and expecting snooze fests. But they should aim for entertaining! This might be the only MLS we get this entire year, given how bad the pandemic is. It would be a shame if what we ended up getting was a bunch of tentative scoreless draws and games that end 1-0.
Connor: The weird start times could effect play but I don’t think it will too much. These guys are professional soccer players so I think any sloppy play will be more on the fact that these teams haven’t played in a while rather than the start times. As a fan, a Taylor ham, egg and cheese on an everything bagel and a cup of coffee to go along with a morning kickoff sound pretty nice to me.
Calvin: NYCFC playing so early in the morning does give me some European football vibes in terms of my viewing pleasure. However, I don’t know what that will do for the product. Early morning times may be beneficial for the players’ stamina considering the humidity in Florida. I think regardless of time of the day, though, the real determining factor will be the clubs’ fitness level and how well their players have been keeping up with their craft during the time off.
Nicholas: The start times aren’t great and don’t make a whole lot of sense. These games will be sloppy from the start anyway, I don’t think the times are going to help. The games will be slow and sloppy similar to the Premier Leagues first games (ex: Aston Villa vs Sheffield United).
Christian: Legend has it that Héber scores a hat trick to begin every day. So I’m expecting 7-5 barn burners with defenses resembling highway traffic cones — they’re merely a suggestion! (I’m kidding. Drive safely.)
In all seriousness, I expect games about as boring as last year’s Champions League final between Liverpool and Tottenham. That’s really the only logical conclusion when you’re dealing with 26 teams that haven’t played any real football — competitive or otherwise — in four months.
General consensus: We’re all hoping for fun games. But we’re expecting boring ones. Sorry.
3.) New York City were drawn into Group A, the largest in the MLS is Back Tournament, and will face the Philadelphia Union, Orlando City, and the Chicago Fire in the group stage. Who of those three pose the biggest threat to City?
Raf: Philadelphia, because they’re the best team after New York City in the group, and they’ve got the most stability. Orlando City is an almighty hot mess, Chicago is starting from scratch with Raphael Wicky, who was the USMNT U-17 manager before taking over the Fire. They should beat Orlando and Chicago; they should, in fact, beat all three teams, but the Union will be tough to beat.
Connor: I hate the city of Philadelphia and everything it stands for, but if any team other then NYCFC is going to win the group, it’s going to be the Union. Jim Curtain has a well-coached and cohesive unit that was formidable at times last year. Their first two games of the season saw a 2-0 loss at FC Dallas and a very credible 3-3 draw away at LAFC. Keep an eye out for striker Kacper Przybylko and how Curtain chooses to fill the Haris Medunjanin void. I think Chicago is bad and Orlando is as well unless Oscar Pareja can pull out some coaching magic and lead Orlando to second or third in the group. Nashville and Inter Miami are both expansion sides so it’s hard to predict how they’ll perform, but I’d put my money on Nashville having more success then Miami.
Calvin: In terms of rivalry, Orlando City and NYCFC is never an easy matchup. No matter how good or bad OCSC is during a season, they always prove to be a thorn in City’s side. I imagine they will be the toughest yet again based on the two clubs’ history.
Nicholas: For me, it has to be Philadelphia. I really like what they are building there. I think Andre Blake is a strong goalkeeper and the attacking talents of Ilsinho and Alejandro Bedoya are formidable. Although we have a strong record against them (8-1-3 in all comps), I think this team is really strong and far better than Orlando or Chicago.
Christian: Philly is by far the toughest team we’ll have to face. But, for one reason or another, I don’t see them as a threat. Historically speaking, City seems to get the better of them more often than not. Rather, it’s perpetual underachievers such as Orlando and Chicago that always seem to get the better of us. Beware of the bogeys! They’re real!
General consensus: Philadelphia is the toughest opponent on paper. But don’t underestimate Orlando and their hate for us.
4.) Do you think this tournament will be a good litmus test for Ronny Deila and his ability to lead the team moving forward? Or is this a glorified preseason?
Raf: It’s not a good test. It’s hard not to think of this as another preseason; certainly, if I were Ronny Deila, that’s how I’d treat it. As of today (6/30/20), it’s been 110 days since MLS suspended play thanks to the pandemic. So yeah, no one’s going to be at peak performance. Have some fun, figure out who your top 11 are, and take it from there.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think Deila is a great coach, and the track record of Scandinavian coaches in MLS isn’t...great. Then again, I didn’t think Dom Torrent was that great either, and by the end he had the Pigeons cooing and purring, so you never know! My bottom line is that MLS is going to be an excellent place to find out whether or not Deila is an excellent manager.
I felt that his Celtic tenure wasn’t exactly fair to him, because the Scottish Premier League is comically unbalanced! The gulf between Celtic, Rangers, and everyone else is absurd; it was even more so last decade, after Rangers were forced to start from scratch. That meant Celtic managers were essentially judged on whether or not they could qualify for the Champions League. Deila didn’t do well there, but then again, the days where Celtic could reasonably compete in that competition are gone.
And again: we’re in the middle of a deadly pandemic! Honestly, nothing this year should count!
Connor: I’m not putting much stock into this tournament. I think it’s a great way to bring sports back when we need it most, but I shouldn’t be calling for anyone’s head during this tournament. I say this now but let’s be honest, I may be screaming for Ronny Delia’s head after the first game because that’s what I do.
Calvin: I think Deila has a lot to prove in this tournament, whatever your view of its validity may be. After debuting with a high octane offense in the team’s first CCL match, the offense sputtered to nearly a complete halt. I don’t think Deila should be approaching this as a glorified preseason at all. For all we know this is the only amount of soccer that will count for MLS this year. He’s going to need to put his best foot forward or we could be looking at yet another managerial change this winter.
Nicholas: If the players take it as seriously as I hope they will, then yes this is a great test for Ronny Deila and his abilities to lead the team. We didn’t get to see much before COVID paused the season, and I’ll be honest what we did see wasn’t great. I’m hoping the players take this seriously.
Christian: If there are points to be won, money to be accrued, and a CCL berth to be earned, then I say that this tournament is 100% important. If Deila mothballs this tournament, then I think it’s an indictment on his ability to lead. Also, I’m not trying to watch other teams play for a month after an NYCFC group stage elimination.
General consensus: MLSIB has all the trappings of a preseason tournament. But most of us expect Deila & Co. to take the tournament seriously and bring about some good results.
5.) NYCFC has historically struggled in tournament-style competitions, whether it be the USOC or the MLS Cup Playoffs. How do you see the Blues faring in the MLS is Back Tournament?
Raf: They should win Group A. Beyond that, if they win the group, they’ll face the Group C runner-up; that should be one of New England, Montreal, or DC. My hunch is that it’ll be Montreal, but who knows? Anyway, they should beat the Group C runner-up, and they should win the quarterfinal match. Semifinal would be a solid finish; anything else would be slightly disappointing, given the talent on the team, but then again, this is basically a glorified pre-season.
Basically, what I’m saying is that this tournament is the equivalent of the Preseason NIT, or a Community Shield/Super Cup, if there were a tournament to decide these things. The most important thing is staying healthy and figuring out who the best 11 are.
Connor: To be honest, I’m just glad to see soccer back. NYCFC is a big part of my life and to have some of that back during this rough time is a relief. I think City will win the group but if they don’t, I won’t be mad. I’m preparing to be hurt come a knockout time though because it’s NYCFC and that’s what they do. I’m just hoping to see some entertaining soccer and see that everyone comes out of it healthy and safe.
Calvin: Unsure really. We’ve never played in a group style setting before. Now we have two of those types of tournaments with CCL and this MLS is Back tournament. Deila is a different coach than Vieira and Torrent, so maybe while their styles worked better over the course of a long season, Deila’s approach could work better in a playoff elimination setting. The Blues should definitely make it out of the group stage, anything less is a failure. Other than that, though, is anyone’s guess. This team, despite having so many returning players, is still such a mystery at this point because we still don’t really know how this team will play under Deila over a large sample of games. While I am hopeful, I only realistically see us making it out of the group.
Nicholas: If they players take this seriously, I see no reason why NYCFC can’t get out of the group. Apart from a bit of a challenge from Philadelphia, they should easily beat Chicago and Orlando. Even if they draw with Philly, they should still get seven points. Seven points should be more then enough to get out of the group and realistically should win them the group. I expect the expansion teams to have a tough go meaning as long as we win two of our three, we should be fine to get through. As for the knockout stages, it’s hard to say. I’m going to err on the side of caution and say we win at least one game.
Christian: I say they do the important stuff and win Group A, collecting the season points. In the KO’s, I honestly have no clue. I say we get to the semi-finals before burning out.
General consensus: NYCFC gets out of Group A one way or another before succumbing to defeat at some point during the knockout rounds.