The Union will play Inter Miami, New York City FC, and Nashville SC in the group stage of Major League Soccer’s tournament, which will be held at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex outside Orlando starting next month.
MLS held the draw for the group stage Thursday afternoon in an event streamed online. Most of the proceedings were an actual draw, but some parts of it were fixed.
Six teams were set as “seeded," one for each group, and two of the teams in Group A were preset: nominal “home team” Orlando City as the “seed,” and expansion team Inter Miami. The two Florida clubs — it’s hard to call them rivals yet, because they’ve never played each other — will meet in the tournament’s first game on July 8.
That’s the group the Union landed in, along with the Chicago Fire. It’s a group with six teams, unlike the rest of the groups, which. have four, because MLS has 26 teams. Each team will play three group stage games, which means the teams in Group A won’t all play one another.
The Union’s games against Miami and NYCFC will have the highest profiles because of the statures of those teams. Miami’s dynamic squad is led by Mexico’s Rodolfo Pizarro. New York has made the playoffs four straight years.
As for the rest of the tournament field, the draw threw together a pile of the league’s rivalries: Seattle-Vancouver, Toronto-Montreal, Cincinnati-Columbus, Atlanta-New York Red Bulls, and the Los Angeles derby between LAFC and the Galaxy. We don’t know if any of the numbered balls with team names in them were cold, but some eyebrows were raised.
The top two teams in each group and the four best third-place finishers overall will advance to the knockout rounds, similar to how it works at a World Cup.
Union sporting director Ernst Tanner said he likes that MLS is doing “something special” to resume games.
“Given the circumstances, I don’t see many other opportunities,” he said.
We still don’t know the game schedule, which means we don’t know exactly when the Union will play. Nor do we know the order of matchups. Tanner said the team would fly to Orlando a week before its first game, so players can spend as much time as possible with their families.
The tournament format and the summer heat in Orlando will be an interesting test of the Union’s high-pressure system. Tanner is well aware of the potential for player fatigue, and he said the team will need not be able to go full-throttle all the time.
“It is not necessarily that we always need to play in our full-power mode," he said. "Certainly we have that preferred style of play, and in some phases of the game we will do it. But we certainly need that possibility to switch. … Regeneration and an efficient style of play are also needed. Our philosophy doesn’t exclude it.”
The Union are one of 14 teams that could be the first in their local markets to play a game since the coronavirus pandemic began, depending on what Major League Baseball does.
Three MLS teams know they’ll be first in their markets because they don’t have MLB teams. And eight know they won’t be because their local NWSL team will precede them. (Four MLS teams share ownership with their local NWSL teams.)
Group A: Orlando City, Inter Miami, New York City FC, Union, Chicago Fire, Nashville SC
Group B: Seattle Sounders, FC Dallas, Vancouver Whitecaps, San Jose Earthquakes
Group C: Toronto FC, New England Revolution, Montreal Impact, D.C. United
Group D: Real Salt Lake, Sporting Kansas City, Colorado Rapids, Minnesota United
Group E: Atlanta United, FC Cincinnati, New York Red Bulls, Columbus Crew
Group F: Los Angeles FC, Los Angeles Galaxy, Houston Dynamo, Portland Timbers
Orlando City: Inter Miami, New York City FC, Nashville SC
Inter Miami: Orlando City, Union, Chicago Fire
New York City FC: Orlando City, Union, Chicago Fire
Union: Inter Miami, New York City FC, Nashville SC
Chicago Fire: Inter Miami, New York City FC, Nashville SC