Checking in on MLS is Back

Had Nashville SC remained in the tournament (sad face goes here), this would have been a regular – perhaps even daily – feature. Alas.

With the third matchday beginning this evening (although the quirky schedule of Group B means that San Jose will finish the group stage with the early game tonight, while Vancouver won’t even play its second group game until later in the evening), let’s take a look at where things stand.

ESPN Wide World Of Sports. Photo courtesy Disney
ESPN Wide World Of Sports. Photo courtesy Disney


Group A

Orlando and Philadelphia are through to the knockout rounds on six points apiece, with their head-to-head match Monday determining who wins the group and who comes in second. Should they draw, Orlando will win the group on tiebreakers (goal differential, theirs is currently +3 while Philly’s is +2).

Meanwhile, neither Inter Miami nor NYCFC can automatically qualify – see the above paragraph – but the winner of their head-to-head will still be alive to advance as a third-place team (a breakdown of that at the bottom of this post).

Group B

A winner in tonight’s Chicago/San Jose match is through to the knockout stages as the first-place team in Group B. A draw would almost certainly see both teams through as the 1-2 finishers, as well (though Vancouver could mount a surprising run in its final two games and change that).

The loser of the second game this evening is almost certainly eliminated from the tournament as the fourth-place finisher, though Vancouver’s back-loaded schedule could still mean they finish third in the group.

Group C

This has a similar schedule to Group A, with a top-two and a bottom-two matchup paired on the final matchday. A draw between New England and Toronto would see them share a place atop the group (Toronto would take the No. 1 spot on the goal-scored tiebreaker), but a clear winner could see the loser drop to third in the group.

DC United could climb to second with a clear winner in the other game and a victory over Montreal Impact. Meanwhile, the Impact could finish third with a win in that scenario, but a third-place finisher with three points would be sweating, at best.

Group D

Colorado is effectively eliminated already (the best they can do is share third place with SKC if both games Wednesday evening break their way), but the other three teams all stand a good chance to advance with the right results in the mid-week.

All three are win-and-in (with Real Salt Lake vs. Sporting KC the headlining match of matchday three, for sure), while a draw should be enough for all of them to advance, as well. I’ll get into third-place finishers below.

Group E

Columbus, the only six-point team through two matchdays in this group, has locked down at least a share of first Group E, and would have to lose to a listless Atlanta team and give up a seven-goal lead in differential to the Red Bulls or nine to FC Cincinnati to even stand a chance of losing tiebreakers. What I’m saying is they’ve won the group.

Somehow, Cincinnati, not Atlanta (which is effectively eliminated, though technically alive to advance as a third-place finisher), will battle the Red Bulls for second place in the group. The winner in that game is through in second, or in the event of a draw, Red Bulls finish No. 2 and FCC is i the hunt for a wildcard slot into the knockouts.

Group F

Portland and LAFC are through as No. 1 and No. 2 (in that order), though a Houston win over the Galaxy could see them tie LAFC for second in the group – but they’d have to make up a massive goal differential of five goals while LAFC loses to Portland, and I don’t think that happens!

The Galaxy are all-but eliminated – with a maximum possible three points, they could theoretically advance as a third-place team – while a Houston win over LAG would see them end up as a four-point team in third, with a chance to go through as a wildcard.

Third-place finishers

There’s still a bit of wiggle room here, of course. But let’s take a look at the potential points attained by each group’s third-place team to determine who’s likely to go through.

MLS is Back third-place group finishers
Group 5 pts 4 pts 3 pts 2 pts 1 pt
A 66.7% 33.3%
B 55.6% 22.2% 22.2%
C 11.1% 22.2% 66.7%
D 66.7% 33.3%
E 33.3% 66.7%
F 33.3% 33.3% 33.3%

So: Finishing with one point (the only place this is possible is Miami and NYC achieving it together) is a guarantee to not go through. Finishing with two points provides the opportunity to go through if and only if Group A’s third-place finishers tie with one point, while both Group B (Seattle and/or Vancouver) and Group F (Houston) have a team finish on two points in third place. It’s unlikely to happen – though if it does, Houston is the current leader in the clubhouse on tiebreakers (four goals for).

So: finishing with at least three points is essentially necessary, and even then you probably have to hope to win a tiebreaker or two. If you’re LA Galaxy (goal differential of -5), you aren’t technically eliminated. But you aren’t making it through without some incredible luck.

What it means for the final round (plus one game)

There could be some pretty interesting games in the third group-stage round:

  • Orlando City SC and Philadelphia Union can go for a win (and top of the group) without the risk of losing knocking them out of a top-two finish in Group A. It should be a wide-open game, at least until one of them scores and tries to protect the lead (though the other will keep going for it).
  • It’s a similar situation in Group F, with Portland and LAFC through as 1-2, but Portland has the advantage of being able to play for a draw, while LAFC’s high-powered attack needs a win to take first in the group. Again, the limited consequences of a loss (there shall be no missing the knockout round) means both can go for it.
  • In Group C, Toronto and New England can both go through with a draw, though a DC win over Montreal would mean a three-way tie for first with tiebreakers coming into account. I still think they’re likely to play a cagey game with little risk-taking, since the loser could get eliminated from the knockout rounds.
  • Sporting Kansas City needs a win to feel secure in advancing to the knockout stages, while Real Salt Lake needs just a draw to secure advancing (but a win to secure first place).
  • A few teams are playing for a little bit of pride out of the tournament, as well as a longshot at advancing in third with their first points of the tournament (Atlanta, Miami, New York). There’s more upside in a win than there is downside in a loss, and while that could mean they treat it like a regular-season game (in which a draw would probably be fine), taking just one point out of three straight regular-season games is still not good. Those groups may go for it. Except Atlanta, which is coached by Fran de Boer.

There’s still plenty to develop as it relates to the bracket, and it looks like the games themselves are set up to continue being extremely exciting.

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