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Downstream: MLS is Back Tournament Group D Preview

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In the upcoming MLS is Back Tournament, the Colorado Rapids have been drawn into a group with Western Conference rivals RSL, SKC, and MNUFC.

Photo Courtesy of Colorado Rapids/MLS

The “D” might just stand for Destiny.

After a long suspension due to the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone’s favorite North American soccer league is back. In the upcoming MLS is Back Tournament, the Colorado Rapids have been drawn into Group D with Western Conference rivals Real Salt Lake, Sporting Kansas City, and Minnesota United FC. This group was determined through a totally 100% random and not at all rigged drawing, and the fact that we have 2.5 out of three spots from four possible rival teams is just a coincidence.

While we may not attract the same viewership as some of the more popular teams like the Seattle Sounders, Atlanta United, or LAFC, I fully believe that the matches played in Group D are going to be some of the most exciting of the tournament. We only got two games into the season before suspending operations due to COVID-19 and three of the four teams that won both their games are in Group D: us, SKC, and Minnesota.

With big expectations from the Burgundy Boys, let’s take a look at each of the three opponents that we have set for the tournament.

Real Salt Lake

When do we play? Sunday, July 12th @ 8:30 p.m.

Real Salt Lake is our first opponent in the tournament. They ended their 2019 campaign in third place in the conference, but started the 2020 campaign off with a pair of ties, 0-0 on the road against Orlando and 1-1 against NYRB at home. During the offseason, they got rid of several high-profile players such as Nick Rimando, Joao Plata, and Brooks Lennon. In turn, they added a lot of homegrowns and USL players, ex-Rapids keeper Zac MacMath, and MLS journeyman Justin Meram. Confusingly, they also signed Giuseppe Rossi, an Italian striker who hasn’t played any professional minutes since 2018.

To me, RSL seems to be the weakest team in the group. Rimando was a mainstay with them, Lennon was a consistent highlight, and Plata was a DP with the team. In their place, they haven’t brought in a lot of convincing talent. Certainly a lot of promise between their homegrowns and USL players, but not many that look like they are going to have a major and immediate impact. They have been consistently seen as one of the most overreaching teams in the league, while we are seen as arguably the most underrated. That should make for a good matchup.

Sporting Kansas City

When do we play? Friday, July 17th @ 6:00 p.m.

SKC’s 2019 season was far from the success that they were used to. They ended up in 11th place, missed the playoffs by a full ten points, and missed out on the postseason for the first time in eight straight years. What was once seen as one of the strongest defenses in the league let in a total of 67 goals. However, in a short time since they played their final minutes in 2019, they have emerged once again as cup contenders.

The club made headlines last offseason by signing Mexican national team striker Alan Pulido. Coming from Guadalajara for a reported $9+ million signing fee, his transfer is the most expensive in SKC history, and it is clear that he is going to be a key player for the team. He scored twice in their first two games, playing a part in a 1-3 win on the road to Vancouver and a 4-0 walloping of Houston at home. But, two games does not a trend set. SKC is definitely a threat and definitely a team we need to look out for, but I think they are far from invincible. They played two games without having their defense tested much, and that unproven back line could end up being a major weakness for them.

Minnesota United

When do we play? Wednesday, July 22nd @ 8:30 p.m.

MNUFC ended their 2019 season in fourth place in the Western Conference — easily the best result in their short MLS tenure. But what could have been seen as an opportunity to pat themselves on the back for finally making it, Minnesota instead has shown they are clearly still focused on the long-term. In the offseason, they parted ways with a few crucial players: DP forward Darwin Quintero was traded to Houston and they couldn’t agree to a reasonable price to keep (heh) GK Vito Mannone, an Italian keeper on loan from Reading who was set to be the most expensive keeper in MLS if Minnesota had kept him on a permanent basis. In his place, they secured Tyler Miller, who had an absolute standout two years with LAFC. They also got Argentinian forward Luis Amarilla, who scored once in each of their two games. They both seem to be fitting replacements from a team that improved greatly last season.

Much like SKC, they started their 2020 season off with a pair of convincing, offense-focused wins. A 1-3 win over the Portland Timbers in Providence Park and a 2-5 trouncing of the Earthquakes in San Jose gives them the distinction of starting the season off with two wins — both on the road. As their attention has shifted to the tournament, they look ready and prepared for play. Brent Kallman and Ike Opara are currently out due to suspension and injury respectively, but may return in the tournament. It is going to hurt not having the MLS 2019 Defender of the Year with them, but aside from that, they are looking to still be a pretty solid threat.

So that’s them, how about those ‘Pids?

Colorado Rapids

We sadly parted ways with Scottish winger Sam Nicholson, but our highly anticipated new signing, Braian Galvan, is now with the team. Kortne Ford unfortunately seems to still be out with injury, but Nicolas Benezet has since recovered from his broken nose and should be available, as well as new defensive midfielder Collen Warner.

The Rapids have a very solid roster available for selection and overall, I’m pretty happy with the state of the team. Even with the loss of Nicholson, we still have a lot of options along the wings. I’m still very excited to watch Younes Namli play. Jack Price is sure to lob some bombs towards Kei Kamara. Sam Vines is set to still be one of the best left backs that the USMNT has available. A lot of what made the 2019 roster so good is still here, and we have only added on to that since.

Photo from training in Orlando during the MLS is Back Tournament.
Photo Courtesy of Colorado Rapids/MLS

What is a realistic expectation from the team?

Honestly, it is hard to say. I do expect to get three points off of RSL, but SKC and Minnesota are a little more difficult to predict. Between the three clubs, we all started the season with two wins and have proven that we have a significant offensive threat. Two games is a pittance in terms of a sample size, but it’s what we have to work with.

One of the many problems with this tournament format is that each game matters a lot. While it isn’t single-knockout elimination, it very nearly might as well be. Getting points out of each game is crucial. Playing for a win, a loss, and a tie would average out the entire group, at which point it would go down to one of many tiebreakers, like goal differential.

If I had to guess, I’d say we’re likely to beat RSL, lose to Kansas City, and tie against Minnesota, but that isn’t to say that we have any gimme result in this entire group stage. I think that it is realistic to expect that we will get into the tournament playoffs. It might come down to that coveted best-of-the-remaining-third-place-teams, but if you’re in, you’re in.

It has been a long time since we’ve been able to see our beloved Rapids play. After good performances against DC United and Orlando City SC, we have had to go 123 days without a real game as of writing this.

For me, I’m just excited to watch my favorite team play again. Results or not, points or not, that is a blessing in this very confusing and stressful time.

What’s the format of the tournament?

Every team has been sorted into a group. With the forced removal of FC Dallas and Nashville SC, there are now six equal groups of four teams. Every team will play three games — one against each of the other teams in the group. A total of five substitutes will be allowed during each game, similar to how Bundesliga and Premier League have allowed five subs, partly to help offset the close proximity of games.

How do we get into playoffs?

The top two teams from each group get in automatically. After that, the top three highest-ranking teams among all six groups are let into the round of 16. That gives us a slightly better than 50% chance to make it in.

What’s at stake?

The group stage matches will all contribute to the points of the regular season, for whatever that will look like following the tournament. Additionally, the winner of the tournament will get the Concacaf Champion’s League spot that normally goes to the Supporters’ Shield winners. The winners will get a $1.1 million prize pool.

How can I watch?

All of the group stage matches will be made available through ESPN, meaning you won’t need to have an Altitude subscription to watch the Rapids play in the tournament. If you do have Altitude, they will re-air the matches if you can’t watch live. ESPN+ will show the replays as well, but won’t show the games live. There will be no artificial crowd noise like we have seen in the Premier League, but microphones will be on the field so you’ll be able to hear the players.

What else should I know?

Up the ‘Pids.