When FC Cincinnati and the Columbus Crew face off late Saturday night at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, four months will have passed between the Orange and Blue’s second game of the 2020 season (a 2-1 loss to Atlanta on March 7) and its third.
Like every other major collegiate and professional sporting league in this country—and, for the most part, around the globe—the COVID-19 pandemic put Major League Soccer on hold. When Orlando City and Inter Miami play tonight, MLS will become the first major men’s pro sports impacted by COVID-19 to resume play. The National Women’s Soccer League returned in late June.
Instead of normal regular season games, MLS is putting on the “MLS Is Back Tournament” in Orlando and encasing players, coaches, et al. inside a “bubble” that happens to be home to one of America’s most serious COVID-19 surges. Following the tournament’s championship—scheduled for August 11—the league hopes to resume regular season play in an undetermined format. For FC Cincinnati and its latest new head coach, the MLS Is Back stakes are high.
So how does this tournament work?
Think of MLS Is Back as a World Cup-style competition. Twenty-four of the league’s 26 teams are split into six groups of four, after FC Dallas and Nashville SC dropped out (more on that below). Each group stage match will count toward the 2020 regular season standings, lending heightened importance to group stage fixtures beyond simply accumulating points to advance to the 16-team knockout stage.
After facing Columbus on Saturday, FC Cincinnati is slated to play Atlanta on July 16 and New York Red Bulls on July 22 to complete Group E play. Yes, oddly enough, FCC will be playing two of its three scheduled matches against the only two teams it faced (and lost to) prior to the shutdown.
How can FC Cincinnati advance to the knockout stage?
The top two teams from each group will automatically advance, joined by the next four highest-ranked third-place teams based on points total. There are tiebreakers in place, too. (Here’s hoping that advancement doesn’t come to the fewest disciplinary points for any squad.)
You said something about FC Cincinnati hiring another head coach?
The club officially hired Jaap Stam on May 21, already the franchise’s fourth full-time head coach since joining MLS last season. Stam took over for Yoann Damet—who was named the club’s interim coach in May 2019 after Alan Koch was fired—and was then thrust into the interim role once more when Ron Jans “resigned” on the eve of the 2020 season for allegedly using a racial slur.
Stam, 47, was one of the top central defenders of his generation, logging 79 appearances for Manchester United, 112 games between Serie A stalwarts Lazio and A.C. Milan, and 67 appearances for the Netherlands national team. He was part of United’s treble-winning 1998-99 team and played for his country at the 1998 World Cup, as well as three European championships, reaching the semifinals in three of those four competitions.
But, while Stam’s playing credentials are impressive, his managing career has been a mixed bag. He’s been an assistant coach and a head coach in the Dutch Eredivisie; he held the latter position at PEC Zwolle and Feyenoord without much success. (PEC Zwolle is the same club where Jans and FC Cincinnati General Manager Gerard Nijkamp worked.) Stam did find some prosperity in England with EFL Championship side (second division) Reading, narrowly missing promotion to the Premier League in his first season. Because of travel restrictions, his first training session with the team was June 16, though the club had just held its first full practice a day earlier.
So can FC Cincinnati actually make some noise in this tournament?
Yes, because there’s no precedent for MLS conducting an in-season, World Cup-esque tournament—a thrilling experiment on paper—or conducting an in-season, World Cup-esque tournament in the midst of a global pandemic in one of the regions of the U.S. being hit hardest by said pandemic. Literally (and I loathe that word) anything could happen. FC Cincinnati will have had what amounts to half a normal preseason to train by the time Saturday night rolls around.
Personnel-wise, there have been zero reported positive COVID-19 tests from FCC before or after the team landed in Orlando on June 29. The ability to make five in-game substitutions instead of the normal three will allow Stam the freedom to drastically alter strategy and/or formations, too. Siem de Jong, who signed with the club in late February but was unable to debut prior the shutdown, will provide FCC with a true No. 10 creative playmaker, albeit one with plenty of miles on his 31-year-old legs.
FC Cincinnati did achieve a clear victory during the hiatus: extending striker Jurgen Locadia’s loan deal to June 2021. (The loan deal was originally due to expire this past Sunday.) Even though Locadia has just one start and one sub appearance under his belt in MLS, his talent level compared to some of his defensive competition was evident. The 6-foot-4 forward could have a few tricks up his sleeve with de Jong, as the two played together for a season at Dutch club PSV. Unfortunately, Locadia is dealing with a thigh injury and his status for Saturday—and the entire tournament—is in jeopardy.
With Locadia, I thought FC Cincinnati would score enough to earn results in their matches. Now, for the first game at the very least, Stam will have to reconstruct his lineup, perhaps with Brandon Vazquez (who started the season opener and notched an assist) installed in the starting XI in a like-for-like forward swap. Yuya Kubo, a winger for FCC so far, could also be used as a more of a false No. 9 that could combine with de Jong high up the midfield to release FCC’s wide players on the flanks. Unlike last season, FC Cincinnati have legitimate options if Locadia can’t go.
Defensively, I don’t think FC Cincinnati will be able to keep opposing offenses from scoring. The club allowed the most goals in MLS history last season, and in the opening two games vs. Red Bulls and Atlanta, the level of cohesion between the back four and the midfield was quite uninspiring at times, particularly in the opener. Again, the team was integrating all sorts of new parts, the head coach had just been sacked, etc. This time around, there’s a new coach, but at least he has a defensive pedigree and will have had nearly a month to implement his tactics.
Still, the training time span was brief and took place under the cloud of a healthcare crisis. Furthermore, FC Cincinnati simply do not possess the athleticism and recovery speed in the back half of their defense to consistently register clean sheets. Thus, a much-improved offense will be tasked with carrying the load.
What’s the incentive for winning MLS Is Back?
A spot in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League and a $1.1 million prize pool for players. The CONCACAF Champions League is similar to the European Champions League, but with teams from North America, Central America, and the Caribbean. Under normal circumstances, there are four ways a team can earn a CONCACAF Champions League berth: win MLS Cup; claim the Supporters’ Shield (own the best regular season record); win the U.S. Open Cup; or be the other regular season conference winner. For FC Cincinnati, the odds of the club succeeding in any of those four avenues is low in 2020, so MLS Is Back provides it with an eminently more reachable path to the franchise’s first trophy.
Can this tournament survive the pandemic?
Before making the trip to Orlando, all “essential members” of a team’s traveling party were required to be tested twice, 24 hours apart. Upon arriving in Orlando, another test was administered and players were cleared to train if they tested negative. For the first two weeks there, each individual must be tested every other day. Then players, coaches, and “pro staff” are tested regularly, including the day prior to a match. Sounds thorough, right?
And yet, because of COVID-19’s unpredictability, a scenario exists where MLS Is Back is scrubbed—and that scenario is inching toward reality. FC Dallas pulled out of the tournament on Monday after 10 players tested positive since arriving in Orlando on June 27, followed by the withdrawal of Nashville SC on Thursday after nine of its players tested positive. Colorado, Toronto FC, and Vancouver had to delay their arrivals to Orlando due to various positive tests. Columbus had a player test positive days after entering the bubble, but the team returned to training less than five days later when those who were in contact with the player tested negative. According to The Athletic, the quick turnaround falls within MLS policy, even if that policy’s moral compass may be lacking.
MLS remains confident that the origins of those positive tests came from outside the bubble. What would it take for MLS Is Back to be cancelled? A positive test or two in a few teams but no community spread among that team likely wouldn’t do it. However, a rash of positive tests among multiple teams—something similar to what Nashville or Dallas have experienced—and MLS Commissioner Don Garber will have no choice but to pull the plug on an experiment that’s treading dangerously toward immoral territory.
The tournament is happening only because of monetary reasons. And while it isn’t the league’s fault that Florida, and in particular the Orlando area, were doing better with COVID-19 infection rates when this tournament was announced on June 10 as it is at present, the league has been steadfast in its commitment to MLS Is Back due to no reported contractions of COVID-19 within the bubble. Only time will tell if that bubble pops.
Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. Off the pitch, he is the associate editor for Signs of the Times magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.