A week into the MLS is Back Tournament, the league’s return to meaningful games for the first time since March has been threatened by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Two teams, FC Dallas and Nashville SC, were forced to withdraw before even playing a game due to multiple positive COVID-19 tests among players. Several other games, including the Revolution’s clash with DC United, have already had to be rescheduled. Yet ensconced within the league’s mandated Disney World “bubble,” the tournament has proceeded even as the number of positive tests in Florida have soared.
Amid the wider challenges, the Revolution won their opener against the Montreal Impact last Thursday, 1-0. The three points for the win, like all wins in the group stage, will be added to the team’s regular season total – the league says the regular season will resume at some point following the end of the summer tournament.
The remaining Revolution group stage games will take place on Friday at 8 p.m. against DC United and Tuesday, July 21 at 9 a.m. against Toronto FC.
Here are a few takeaways from the tournament so far:
▪ The Revolution’s big three showcased their potential: Prior to the league-wide shutdown in March, New England was quietly off to a sluggish 0-1-1 start despite preseason optimism. A big part of the early disappointment was because of playmaker Carles Gil’s absence with a foot injury.
Gil was not only back on the field against Montreal, but was arguably New England’s most impactful player (possibly aside from goalkeeper Matt Turner). According to Opta Stats, Gil created 12 chances for his teammates, including the assist for forward Gustavo Bou’s game-winning goal.
The win over the Impact was also the first time in Revolution history that the club started three designated players in the same game. Gil, Bou, and forward Adam Buksa combined well, producing a dominant performance despite the close scoreline.
The Revolution, while wasteful in front of goal, created myriad chances. It was a game that not only ended with three points, but offered a glimpse at the team’s wider potential.
▪ Favorites stumble out of the gate: Six teams were selected as top seeds going into the tournament’s group stage based 2019 performance. Other than Orlando City (who were seeded as hosts), Real Salt Lake were the only top seed to emerge from the first round of games with a win.
The unpredictability of the tournament’s first week is no guarantee that a traditional powerhouse won’t still emerge as the winner, but it underscores the current parity created by unusual circumstances. Revolution coach Bruce Arena, noting the league’s intention to resume some form of the regular season following the tournament, cautioned against jumping to conclusions.
“I think in the short term, teams that have been able to prepare a little better in their home markets are probably better positioned to get some results here,” said Arena. “But I wouldn’t read a whole lot into this group play right now. I think when September comes around, we’re going to have a better feel for all the clubs in Major League Soccer.”
▪ Will the bubble hold? After being rocked by a cluster of early positive tests — and two teams having to withdraw from the tournament entirely — more recent results have been more promising. Of the 1,227 active tournament players and staff tested on July 12 and 13, zero tested positive for COVID-19.
Given the wider spike in cases in Florida, it’s far from assured that MLS will be able to keep it up, but Arena said the level of safety created by the league’s approach has allowed his team to keep its focus on the field.
“We’ve been here almost two weeks, and I haven’t seen any turmoil from the start,” Arena explained when asked about the tournament’s early challenges. “I know two teams [withdrew] but this environment is very safe. I mean literally where else in the United States can you be in a surrounding where there’s about 1,200-1,300 people and no one tests positive for the virus?
“From the start when we came here, we’ve felt comfortable,” Arena added. “The conditions have been OK. No one likes to live in a hotel day in and day out, but the hotel’s been fine, the food’s good, the training fields are good, the game fields are excellent. So to be honest with you, we have nothing to complain about.”