The draw for Major League Soccer’s return-to-play tournament in Orlando will be held this afternoon at 2:30 p.m. CDT. You can watch on the league’s social channels, including on Youtube here.
When the 2020 MLS season began, expectations for Nashville SC were decidedly meager. The club hadn’t splashed money for well-known players with European pedigrees, and most predicted a finish at or near the bottom of the Western Conference.
Now, the Boys in Gold could be as close as seven games – or four wins – away from earning one of the league’s berths in the 2021 Concacaf Champions League.
MLS’s teams will reconvene in Orlando in late June for a tournament running July 8-Aug. 11. The winner of that tournament will take home a $1.1 million prize, and earn the right to play for a continental championship next year. A three-game group stage (with each game also counting toward regular-season standings) followed by a four-round knockout tournament will determine the fates of the league’s 26 clubs.
“One of the big challenges was “how do we make this meaningful?,” said Nashville SC General Manager Mike Jacobs. “This can’t be like a preseason exhibition tournament. With the carrot of a CCL place in front of all of us, there’s never been a route [into that tournament] like this available. With the absence of the US Open Cup this year, it makes sense that an event like this replaces it with a CCL spot. You have some prize money available as well.
“I think our club appreciates how important the CCL is, and relishes the opportunity to, in our first year, to pursue something like that.”
Nashville SC will move to the Eastern Conference for the tournament – and the remainder of the 2020 Major League Soccer season – and will learn its opponents for the group stage this afternoon. See the seeding process here in advance of the league’s stream of the ceremony.
The Boys in Gold will be placed in a group with Orlando City, Toronto FC, or Atlanta United, along with other teams chosen through random draw among Eastern Conference sides. While Orlando’s group will consist of six teams, the top two teams from each of the groups (regardless of group size) will advance to the knockout stage, along with the four best third-place group finishers across the league’s six total groups.
While Nashville SC’s 2020 season included just a pair of losses – 2-1 against Atlanta and 1-0 in Portland – prior to the abrupt halt forced by the coronavirus pandemic, there’s reason to believe bright times are ahead for the team. That can begin with this tournament.
“It’s funny, you’d think two or three months ago what a disadvantage we have with the limited time we’ve had together with the group,” Jacobs said. “In some ways with a quick turnaround when you think about how active teams are in scouting, I think teams probably know less about us – other than maybe Miami – than any other team in the league. By the time teams figure out who were are, we might already be though group stages, I think we could sneak up on some teams.”
What the General Manager is certain of is that his team will show up ready to play. Defender Daniel Lovitz cast doubt last week that this is the case for teams across the league, and while Jacobs doesn’t want to speak for any of those groups, he’s confident that his team has done everything within the constraints of social distancing and no-training protocols to be prepared to succeed in the Sunshine State.
“As far as group dynamics, and what teams are dealing with as far as who’s excited to play or not, I have to tell you I can’t speak for other locker rooms: I think it’d be unfair of me to do that to my peers also at other teams,” he explained. “We’re too busy worrying about our own team.
“I just know that I think that what you lose sometimes – all the time – with an expansion team is the idea of building this continuity, and I talk about cohesion a lot. We played against a team like Portland who had had some combination of guys who had been together for six years. We had guys who hadn’t been together for six months; closer to six weeks. These two and a half months, where we have had a moratorium, and we haven’t had team training, you’d be surprised at how much time these guys have spent together, and I think how much closer the group’s gotten.
“Those of you around our team, I think you’ll be able to see it more and more each day. I think this break’s kind of let us catch up a little bit, to kind of building that continuity. I think our group is very hungry. Whether others are disadvantaged by their feelings about coming back to play in Orlando, I just know our groups very excited and looking forward to it.”
It’s unlikely Nashville comes out of the gates and lays waste to all opposition. There’s no denying the team is ready to perform to its top capability, though, and prove that they’re here to compete. They didn’t have a chance before this moratorium, and that’s only added to the collective hunger.
Wide World of Sports complex photo courtesy Disney.