MLS Is Back: Best Stories of the Group Round and the Knockout Stage's Incentive Question

Now that the games that counted toward the regular season are done, the knockout stage could come down to a familiar cliché.
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It may not be at the very top of the list of athlete interview clichés, but it’s probably on the first page. It’s easy to imagine it being entered into Nuke LaLoosh’s little notepad.

“We/they just wanted it more.”

It’s flexible. It can be used after almost any competition and any kind of result. It conveniently ignores what actually happened on the field (or court or ice or whatever), and blithely glosses over individual performances and decisions made by athletes or coaches. It’s inherently meaningless. And so it’s been an interview staple for years.

But the world has changed. Now, during this surreal period of life and sports turned upside down, “We/they just wanted it more” is set to become astute, relevant analysis. You can thank the MLS is Back Tournament, the experimental, mostly-successful, month-long event in Central Florida that’s set to enter the knockout stage. Sixteen teams remain, and they’ll play in a single-elimination bracket culminating in the Aug. 11 final.

Analyzing and predicting MLS is always a fool’s errand, and over the past two weeks—thanks to the tropical conditions, the pandemic layoff, a few injuries or absences and other variables, there have been some surprising results. Atlanta United went home winless and goalless. That’s a shocker, even when considering the absence of Josef Martínez. And it cost coach Frank de Boer his job. The LA Galaxy managed only a draw across three games, while supposed also-rans Orlando City and FC Cincinnati went a combined 4-1-1 and advanced.

So what’s the best way to forecast the MLS is Back Tournament’s knockout rounds? Go back to LaLoosh’s notebook. It’s going to have a lot to do with whomever wants it more.

San Jose, Columbus and Kansas City have looked sharp at MLS Is Back

This tournament was always going to be confronted by two tests. The first and more important one was whether the Orlando bubble would hold. It was touch-and-go at the beginning, as several clubs had players test positive shortly after arriving in Florida and both FC Dallas and Nashville SC were withdrawn from the competition. But everyone else settled in and the protocols appear to have worked. The bubble has held, strengthened even, and there have been no positive tests at all announced by MLS in any of the past five two-day reports. In that context, MLS is Back has been a success.

The other test starts this weekend. The group stage may have been haphazard or chaotic, but there was no doubting anyone’s intentions or commitment. These matches counted toward the regular season that MLS hopes to resume later this summer. They were real games, albeit played in front of virtual fans and sponsors. There was incentive.

From Saturday on, however, the incentive is murkier. The knockout rounds don’t count toward the regular season. They’ll determine only who wins the MLS is Back Tournament. So the question confronting the 16 remaining teams is, do you want to win this tournament badly enough to remain isolated in Orlando for up to 2.5 additional weeks? The prize is a trophy that nobody’s seen that may or may not mean anything (and MLS skimping out on medals for last year’s Campeones Cup and Leagues Cup isn’t a good sign), a small share of $1.1 million in prize money that’ll be divided among multiple teams, and a spot in the 2021 Concacaf Champions League. Will a February trip to Honduras motivate an MLS player to make that 40-yard recovery run in 95-degree heat during an MLS is Back quarterfinal? We’ll see.

The potential price for all that booty and glory is additional days away from home and family, along with the wear and tear that results from extra games in a taxing environment (the attrition already is evident on several teams). Is it worth it? Do you want it? If teams decide they do, if MLS is Back renown proves enticing, then the upcoming matches should deliver the drama we typically associate with knockout-round soccer. But if the race to the trophy devolves into a race to the airport, the stage MLS still has had largely to itself will feature rotated squads, reserves and an atmosphere that’s befits an ESPN Wide World of Sports facility more accustomed to preseason games and youth events.

For the likes of Orlando and Cincinnati, winning the tournament might go a long way toward establishing a championship culture under new managers. If you’re the Seattle Sounders or Toronto FC, lifting this trophy on Aug. 11 might merit a footnote in the club’s media guide. The sauna-like conditions and varying levels of form and fitness already have leveled the playing fields in Orlando. Some teams wanting it more than others should continue the trend over the next couple weeks.

Here’s a quick look at where things stand during the odd transition between the more important games, which have already been played, and the matches that’ll decide the tournament title:

Cincinnati-MLS-Back

Best stories of the group stage

FC Cincinnati and Orlando City

Nobody’s gotten more out of MLS is Back than these forlorn franchises, who have enjoyed a small but very welcome taste of success. Orlando failed to qualify for the MLS playoffs in its first five seasons, but now, under former FC Dallas manager Óscar Pareja, it's into the round of 16 with a 2-0-1 mark. The Lions are playing the sort of smart, structured soccer that works in tournament play. And FCC, a laughingstock during its 2019 expansion season, was pummeled by Columbus in its MLS Is Back opener but rebounded with shutout wins over Atlanta and the New York Red Bulls.

Young forwards flourish

Youthful attackers with energy are creating and finishing chances in the Orlando heat. At the top of the list are Toronto FC’s 20-year-old Ayo Akinola, who’s eligible to represent the USA, Canada and Nigeria, and LAFC’s 22-year-old Diego Rossi. They each have five goals. Akinola has been filling in for Jozy Altidore, who’s been a reserve in Orlando, and Rossi has helped LAFC ensure it hasn’t missed an attacking beat without league MVP Carlos Vela, who opted out of the competition for family reasons. Orlando’s second-year forward Chris Mueller, 23, also has impressed with three goals, as has Portland’s 23-year-old striker, Jeremy Ebobisse.

Older forwards, too

Somehow, the heat hasn’t sapped the strength of 37-year-old Chris Wondolowski or 35-year-old Bradley Wright-Phillips. The former, MLS’s regular-season goal king, has netted twice for the San Jose Earthquakes, who finished first in Group B. And former New York Red Bulls icon Wright-Phillips looks like he’s going to be the steal of the offseason for LAFC. He has three goals so far.

Darlington Nagbe changes the Crew

The quiet, unassuming midfielder remains a game-changer on the field. He helped Portland and Atlanta to championships and now, reunited with former college and Timbers coach Caleb Porter in Columbus, Nagbe is the linchpin of the only team to go 3-0-0 during the group stage. Nagbe’s ability to hold and distribute the ball might be peerless in MLS, and his 98% pass completion rate helped the Crew maintain the possession that’s so vital to Porter’s approach. Nagbe’s performance left USA coach Gregg Berhalter answering questions about whether the midfielder might have a future with the national team.

Fantastic finishes

Tired legs and extended stoppage times, usually the result of the mid-half water breaks, have led to some bonkers finishes. There were nine goals scored during second-half stoppage time during the group stage, which was highlighted by Orlando’s 97th-minute clincher against new rival Inter Miami (courtesy of Nani), San Jose’s stunning 4-3 comeback win over the Vancouver Whitecaps, 10-man D.C. United’s improbable recovery against Toronto and Minnesota United’s two-goal stoppage-time miracle against Sporting Kansas City.

Nani and Orlando City win the first game at MLS Is Back

Knockout-stage intrigue

The highlight of the round of 16 should be Monday’s rematch of the 2019 Western Conference final between the Sounders and LAFC. Vela and now Adama Diomande (foot) are out for LAFC, but the offense isn’t the problem. Bob Bradley’s side scored 11 goals in three games. It was a bit of looseness in defensive midfield and in back that left LAFC in second place in Group F, and which was the difference against the Sounders last season. Forward Jordan Morris has been in good form for the league champs, who’ve also got a few players on the injured list. This could very well be the ultimate “who wants it more?” game. The winner will be heavily favored in the quarterfinals against either Orlando or the Montreal Impact.

Two other teams that could make a case for a longer stay in Orlando are the Philadelphia Union and New England Revolution. Philly’s never won a senior trophy, and the Revs haven’t earned one since 2008 (unless you count conference titles). Both figure to be teams on the rise in the Eastern Conference. The Union have made strides under Jim Curtin and won their first playoff game last season, and New England signaled its intentions by hiring Bruce Arena and signing Gustavo Bou and Carles Gil. Both may find the benefit of winning the tournament and booking a CCL berth is worth the investment. They meet Saturday in the round of 16.