The MLS is Back Tournament has come under scrutiny in recent days after the plan to house all teams’ players and staff in Orlando, Florida outside of Disney World appeared a sound one. Coronavirus cases for personnel inside the bubble at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports has thrown the tournament in doubt.
But according to Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber, the tournament is set to go on, which means Columbus Crew SC will return to play on Saturday night against Hell is Real rivals FC Cincinnati. Until it is announced otherwise, Massive Report will continue to operate under the assumption that the Crew will take the field this weekend for the first time since mid-March.
With an unorthodox mid-summer tournament upcoming, Massive Report takes a look at five bold predictions for the MLS is Back Tournament.
Fanendo Adi will lead the Crew in scoring in the MLS is Back Tournament
Before the coronavirus outbreak stopped MLS play, the Black & Gold scored two goals in two games, one apiece by forward Gyasi Zardes and attacking midfielder Lucas Zelarayan. These two, who are the favorites to lead Columbus’ attack throughout the rest of the season, are the obvious choices to be the team’s top goal scorers. But Adi, who was signed in the offseason after a disappointing year in Cincinnati in 2019, has a good shot of leading the Crew in goals in the tournament.
Given the schedule — a game every five days — and players’ lack of fitness with nearly four months off, head coach Caleb Porter will have to rotate his squad. With five substitutions also available, expect to see a number of Black & Gold players feature throughout MLS is Back. Given that, Adi, despite serving as the backup to Zardes, is going to get his time. Porter has also said that he views the first three group games as regular season contests, as the points earned will count toward the 2020 standings, and the knockout stage as more of an Open Cup for a CONCACAF Champions League spot. That means if Columbus advances to the knockout games, players such as Adi could be used more frequently to keep starters fresh.
Given Adi’s propensity to score while playing under Porter, 51 goals in four seasons together with the Portland Timbers, there’s little reason to believe the striker won’t find the net if given opportunity. It seems he will have his chances as the Crew navigate this tournament and can justify his addition by scoring with regularity.
The Crew will at least make the semifinal
Advancing from Group E of the MLS is Back Tournament should not be too difficult for the Black & Gold. With three third place teams qualifying for the knockout round, one win might be enough to see Columbus through. And given that the Crew will take on an FC Cincy side that struggled last year and is yet to play under new manager Jaap Stam, Atlanta United won’t have Josef Martinez and the New York Red Bulls, who are in rebuild mode, the Black & Gold don’t have the most difficult path out of the group.
While it’s hard to find an oddsmaker that likes Columbus in the tournament, the Crew was a sleeper pick coming into the year and looked good money in the first two games, getting a win against New York City FC and a draw at the Seattle Sounders before play stopped.
Given that the Black & Gold managed the time off well and returned to the various types of training earlier than many teams in MLS, Porter’s group should be as prepared as any. This will lead to a surprise run that takes the team to at least the semifinal with a chance to take home the prize money and the Champions League spot.
Columbus will not concede in group play but will struggle to score
Typically to start any season, it is the offense that takes longer to come together than the defense. Given this is essentially a new year, after so long off and only two games played, expect that general rule of thumb to continue in the MLS is Back Tournament.
The Crew’s defense was strengthened this offseason with the addition of Vito Wormgoor and the return of Milton Valenzuela from injury. The team looked good defensively in the first two games — with Wormgoor only playing in one and Valenzuela coming off at halftime in Seattle — and that should continue throughout the tournament, holding Cincinnati, Atlanta and the Red Bulls scoreless.
On the other side, however, Zardes and Zelarayan must rebuild any chemistry established in the preseason and the likes of Pedro Santos, Luis Diaz and Youness Mokhtar must find their scoring touch. While that may come with games, it will take more time and there may seem to be some offensive struggles early in the tournament.
Chris Cadden announces himself to MLS
Cadden was signed last summer but was sent on loan to Oxford United for the remainder of the season. He joined the Crew ahead of this year and came off the bench in each of the first two games of the MLS season. While Cadden is expected to be the heir apparent to right back Harrison Afful, he could feature more regularly for the Black & Gold in the MLS is Back Tournament.
As Orri Benatar pointed out on this week’s Massive Report Podcast, it’s always good to have versatile players to stick in various positions when needed in these types of tournaments. Cadden fills that role, having already played as an outside midfielder and a left back for Columbus. Cadden can also fill in at central midfielder, meaning he can step up wherever Porter needs in games.
Like with Adi, Cadden will benefit from the team rotating throughout the tournament and, with the league watching, will become a name MLS teams know by the end of MLS is Back.
Darlington Nagbe is the Crew’s MLS is Back Tournament MVP
Before the stoppage in play, Nagbe made his first two appearances for the Black & Gold after his big-money move from Atlanta this offseason. In those first two games, Nagbe seamlessly stepped into the midfield alongside Artur, giving Porter the double-pivot he has looked for since becoming Columbus’ head coach.
In 180 minutes to start the year, Nagbe connected on 92 percent of his passes for the Crew, the most on the team, and was fourth-best with 56.5 passes per game as he was key to the team’s offensive transition. Nagbe showed he is still a player who doesn’t lose the ball and makes the smart pass, helping to set up the Black & Gold’s first goal of the season.
The time off has only allowed Nagbe to get hungrier to prove what he can do for his new team and the MLS is Back Tournament will allow him to do so. After coming back to Ohio as one of the most expensive transfers in Crew history, Nagbe will continue to earn his money as the best player on the field for Columbus in the tournament.