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Everything you wanted to know about soccer, but were afraid to ask: The MLS is Back with a group stage tournament

Explaining how group stage tournaments work in soccer

Hello, and welcome again to soccer for dummies. Or futbol for football fans. Or footy for Americans. Or how to enjoy a soccer game without feeling intimidated and overwhelmed. Regardless of where you come from, I hope to bring a little more clarity and a deeper understanding as you support Columbus Crew SC.

After a long layover, and plenty of time to play FIFA and other games, the MLS is Back Tournament kicked off on Wednesday. With three regular season games worth of points and a CONCACAF Champion’s League spot on the line, there is a lot on the line.

With all of that being said, it would be helpful to understand how the tournament works. When most American sports fans hear the term “tournament,” images of March Madness and other single-elimination style tournaments come to mind. If you have not experienced a Group-style soccerr tournament before, it can be very confusing. So, let’s try to lend some clarity to MLS is Back Tournament.

The concept of a single-elimination tournament is not unfamiliar to the American sports fan. Nearly every single major American sport crowns their champion through some type of tournament. But in most cases, those tournaments are seeded through a thorough vetting process. Either regular-season results, a selection committee or some combination. No matter how the process happens, an even number of teams are chosen.

But the MLS does not have an even number of teams, so seeding is done through group play. In group-stage style tournaments, odd-numbered or big groups of teams are seeded through a series of games within small groups. Teams are assigned groups that they will play multiple times (in most cases, twice). These groups are usually drawn at random. While teams will stay within their conference, the MLS is Back Tournament was theoretically drawn randomly. Each of the teams will play three games from within the group that will eventually count towards their regular season record. The point results are the same as a regular game: three points for a win, one point for a draw, no points for a loss. Teams are then seeded in the knockout round based on their point.

In many international tournaments, the seeding is very straight forward after the group stage. Either there is a draw, or seeding is determined by point totals. For the MLS is Back Tournament, things are a little bit more complicated. While most groups are equal in number, Group A has one more team than every other group. After the group stage, the top two teams of each group are seeded according to their placement within their group. After that, you need to take out your secret decoder ring for third place seating depends on point total. I’ve included the bracket for reference.

Rosetta Stone not included

From here, many international tournaments (UEFA Champions League for example) will do a home and home tie where a game is played at the home stadium of each team and the combined score of both matches determines who goes on through the tournament. This is where you might see the term “aggregate score.” For the MLS, since it is all held in the same venue, it is a single-elimination, win-and-advance situation. As in with most other tournaments, seeding determines the difficulty of each teams path. A higher seeded team (theoretically better) will play lower seeded (theoretically worse) teams first, only meeting higher seeded teams deeper in the bracket. The seeding can be very important, and this is where the group stage becomes important for the Crew.

Being “randomly drawn” into Group E with Atlanta United (currently without their best player, Josef Martinez), New York Red Bulls (on the rebuild), and FC Cincinnati (still trying to figure out what their head coach looks like); the Crew are poised to have a relatively easy group stage. Beyond racking up some regular season points, the Black and Gold could help secure a more favorable seeding which could help them progress further into the tournament. Look for a strong start this Saturday against FC Cincinnati to pick up 3 points off the bat. If they can at least draw next Thursday against NY Red Bulls, they could guarantee a spot in the tournament; a win could lock-in the top seed. If they lock that in early, their final game vs. Atlanta may not be important, beyond regular season points.

At the end of the road: the winner of the tournament earns a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League tournament (a group-stage style tournament between the best teams in North and Central America, as well as the Carribean). Additionally, $1.1 Million is available through a prize pool.

Group-stage style tournaments are a very popular way for large soccer organizations to award a championship. The World Cup, UEFA, CONCACAF and many European domestic cups use this format. It allows for odd-numbered teams to eventually be seeded and can bring some interesting matchups based on upsets. The group stage brings its own type of strategy where teams might let up off the gas for a final game if they have already sealed their spot. While they might be a bit unfamiliar to the newer soccer fan, the rules and strategy can be fairly easily understood.