Major League Soccer's summer tournament is exceptional in a lot of ways, from the venue to the lack of fans to the sweltering summer weather at Disney World. As the knockout rounds begin this weekend, another aspect that hasn't gotten much attention will come to the forefront.
Because points earned in the group stage will count in the regular season if it resumes, you can fairly make the case that group-stage success matters more than winning it all. The tournament winner gets a Concacaf Champions League berth and a cash prize; the 15 teams that will be eliminated from now through the Aug. 11 final don’t get much of anything.
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A given team's players might think they can win the title, sure. But the motivation might have to come from a different place.
For the Union, that place is easy to find: The team has never won a trophy in its 11-year history. Say what you will about how much this tournament matters — and plenty of people have said plenty of things — but for the Union, it does.
So, too, do the positive reviews the team got for how it played in the group stage: two wins, a draw, some goals to remember, and the arrival of Brenden Aaronson on a national stage.
Union captain Alejandro Bedoya has noticed all of it.
“When I first came to the club, I wanted it to be more ambitious,” he said this week. “I was up for the challenge to get more respect for the club, because I don’t think in the years past anybody’s talked about the Union as a ‘good’ [or] ‘fun’ team to watch, and I think we certainly are that now.”
That isn’t just his opinion. It’s shared league-wide, and perhaps too by the foreign scouts who have been paying close attention to Aaronson and Mark McKenzie this summer.
They’ve noticed, too, the cohesion that the Union are playing with. Bedoya said he has seen that cohesion grow on and off the field — especially within the closed confines of the Disney World bubble.
“Every time we step out on the field … we take it seriously and we try to have fun and enjoy it,” he said. “It’s just about remaining optimistic [and] positive, and I think within our group, whether it’s playing Call of Duty online together or FIFA with the guys, you know, guys have come together and we’ve built an even stronger bond with each other, getting to know one another even more.”
Culture doesn’t usually beat talent in soccer. But when the talent isn’t playing well, a strong game plan can make a difference. Star-studded Atlanta United, Inter Miami, and the Los Angeles Galaxy crashed spectacularly in the group stages.
Bedoya wondered aloud about “some of the former favorite teams” that “weren’t all buying into the whole bubble concept, or the fact that the games counted as three points for the regular season,” though he quickly added he was speaking only for himself, lest his words end up on bulletin boards.
That probably won’t happen this month, mainly because the teams that stunk need no reminder. Atlanta’s three losses were so ugly that the team parted ways with manager Frank de Boer on Friday.
As for the “big” teams left in the field — Toronto, New York City, Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles FC, and Kansas City — they all have ample smarts to match their skills. And the Union, fortunately, might avoid most of them. With some luck and help from other teams, the Union have an easier path to the final than their group winner, Orlando City.
Orlando will play Montreal on Saturday, and the winner of that game will get LAFC or the Sounders. The Union-New England winner will face Kansas City or Vancouver.
With all due respect to Sporting and the Whitecaps, they'd take the Union's path too.
On top of that, Toronto and New York meet in the round of 16 too, with the winner to play Portland in the quarterfinal opposite the Union. And the best team in the tournament so far, Columbus, is in the quarter opposite Seattle and L.A.
As with any tournament, the Union will have to play the big teams eventually in order to finish on top. But the bracket sets up pretty well for Bedoya and his teammates if they can take advantage of it.
8 p.m.: A1. Orlando City vs. C3. Montreal Impact (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes)
10:30 p.m.: A2. Union vs. C2. New England Revolution (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes)
8 p.m.: C1. Toronto FC vs. A3. New York City FC (FS1)
11 p.m.: D1. Sporting Kansas City vs. B3. Vancouver Whitecaps (FS1, TUDN)
8:30 p.m.: B1. San Jose Earthquakes vs. D3. Real Salt Lake (FS1, Fox Deportes)
11 p.m.: B2. Seattle Sounders vs. F2. Los Angeles FC (FS1, UniMás, TUDN)
8 p.m.: E1. Columbus Crew vs. D2. Minnesota United (ESPN, ESPN Deportes)
10:30 p.m.: F1. Portland Timbers vs. E2. FC Cincinnati (ESPN, ESPN Deportes)
8 p.m.: Union or New England vs. Kansas City or Vancouver (ESPN, ESPN Deportes)
7:30 p.m.: Orlando or Montreal vs. Seattle or Los Angeles (FS1, UniMás, TUDN)
8 p.m.: San Jose or Salt Lake vs. Columbus or Minnesota (ESPN2, ESPN Deportes)