26 Thoughts: Nobody illustrates upside-down MLS is Back Tournament better than its hometown team

Doug McIntyre
·12 min read
Orlando City still has never made the playoffs, but Tesho Akindele (13) and the Lions are headed to the MLS is Back knockout stage. (Photo by Joe Petro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Orlando City has never made the playoffs, but Tesho Akindele (13) and the Lions are headed to the MLS Is Back knockout stage. (Photo by Joe Petro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Doug McIntyre’s MLS column, 26 Thoughts, parses through the latest insights and inside info from around American soccer.

Show of hands: Who would’ve guessed that Orlando City and the Montreal Impact would be the two teams contesting the marquee first knockout stage match of the MLS is Back Tournament on Saturday night?

In hindsight, maybe we should’ve seen a few of the shocking results from group stage coming. Before the World Cup-style event in Central Florida began on July 8, MLS teams were on hiatus for more than three months. The games have been played at odd hours, in harsh conditions, without fans on what usually are practice fields.

Still, surely nobody could’ve foreseen so many teams that didn’t make the MLS Cup playoffs in 2019 advancing to the round of 16. In addition to Orlando and Montreal, that group includes FC Cincinnati, the Columbus Crew, San Jose Earthquakes and Vancouver Whitecaps.

On the flip side, recent league juggernauts such as Atlanta United and the New York Red Bulls are already headed home after just three games. It’s bizarre, but it’s not boring. And as far as the storylines go, Orlando City’s rise is as good a place to start as any.

26 Thoughts

1. Sitting in a jam-packed Citrus Bowl with 60,000 purple-clad supporters for the Lions’ 2015 debut, OCSC’s potential seemed limitless. The excitement was palpable across Central Florida. Businesses and private citizens were flying Orlando City flags outside of their front doors. Every third car seemed to have the club’s logo affixed to its bumper. Despite all that momentum and the presence of a former Ballon d’Or winner in Brazilian legend Kaka, five years on the club has still never made it to the postseason, largely because of a culture of front-office dysfunction.

2. Along the way, coaches Adrian Heath, Jason Kreis and James O’Connor came and went. Now former FC Dallas and Colorado Rapids boss Oscar Pareja is at the helm following a year away from MLS with Liga MX side Tijuana.

“The first thing that Oscar did was bring a different level of intensity to the team and raise the standards that we hold ourselves to in practice, games, off the field, everything,” Lions forward Tesho Akindele, who played for Pareja in Dallas, told Yahoo Sports this week. “It’s a big mentality shift.”

3. That shift was sorely needed. Last season, Orlando dropped more points from winning positions than just about any other team in the league. “I’m not sure if we for some reason had a lack of focus at the end of games or what,” Akindele said. “But it seems like we’ve been a little bit better with that this year. Our focus overall — even at the beginning of games — has just been up a bit.”

4. It’s not like Orlando hasn’t had the horses in its stable. Former Manchester United winger Nani arrived last year to replace the retired Kaka. Akindele, Oriol Rosell and Dom Dwyer are proven MLS veterans. Chis Mueller, now in his third season with the club, is coming into his own.

“The first thing that I saw was a group of talented players, a good base,” Pareja said. “And I think they’ve responded to the methodology and the ideas that we have brought. We still have work to do. But to have success early in the season is important. It increases their confidence.”

5. As a player, Pareja was an attacking midfielder who made 11 appearances for the great Colombian national teams of the early- to mid-1990s. After moving to the New England Revolution in 1998, he spent most of the next two decades in MLS, most of them as a player or coach with FCD. That was part of the reason he accepted the Xolos job following the 2018 season.

“In Dallas we were in a great spot, but sometimes we get too comfortable and we have to look for things that make us grow,” Pareja said in a phone interview. “I was missing a little bit my own culture in South America, that need for immediate results, how the media go in on you every single minute of the day, how the fans wherever you go have something to say. All of those things were part of my journey in Mexico. For sure I’m a better coach now.”

6. One of the things Pareja said he learned in Liga MX was how to change tactics in the middle of games. That’s something being done around the world with increasing frequency, but it remains rare in MLS. “Adjusting during the games in Mexico is crazy,” Pareja said. “It’s something we need to evolve at as [MLS] coaches. Sometimes we are too rigid in the way we do things because we have been successful in the past.”

First-year manager Thierry Henry guided the Montreal Impact out of the MLS is Back group stage. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
First-year manager Thierry Henry guided the Montreal Impact out of the MLS is Back group stage. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

7. Under first-year coach Thierry Henry, Montreal figures to keep Pareja guessing on how they’ll line up right up until kickoff Saturday. “Their formation has changed the last three, four games that we saw,” Pareja, who didn’t learn his team’s first knockout stage foe until Wednesday night, told reporters on a Zoom call Thursday afternoon.

8. Before the tournament started, there was a sense that Orlando, Miami and a few other Southern-based teams could have an advantage because they’re used to training in hot and humid conditions. Has it helped the Lions? “I don’t really buy that,” Akindele said. “At this point, everybody has been here for weeks, so you get used to it. Where I do think there could be an advantage is with the [athletic] trainers and the staff of those teams. They might have a few tricks and tips to prevent cramps that a team like Montreal doesn’t have.”

9. During Thursday’s (virtual) pre-match news conference, Impact playmaker Bojan Krkic said that Orlando has no advantage. Henry, on the other hand, mentioned the conditions without being asked. “They understand the heat and humidity,” he said of Orlando City.

10. One of the breakout players of the first round has been 20-year-old Toronto FC striker Ayo Akinola, a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen whose five goals in TFC’s first two matches caught the attention of fans of both countries’ national teams. Akindele was in a similar position back in 2015. He even attended a USMNT camp before ultimately committing to Canada, where he grew up before moving to the U.S. as a teenager.

“The Canadian guys with TFC are probably in his ear every day telling him to come to the good side,” Akindele joked. Then he turned serious.“It’s difficult for him because he’s behind Jozy Altidore, who is one of the greatest strikers ever in this league. So he had to wait for his opportunity and when he got it, he was ready. I think that’s a great lesson to a lot of young players.”

11. On a conference call Tuesday with reporters, USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter was asked about Akinola and Mueller. “We’re talking about three games each and [some are] saying this is a senior national team player,” Berhalter said. “So we just have to be careful. We have to give these guys time to grow. We have to let them enjoy this.”

12. Berhalter relayed that message to Akinola personally, he said, but Mueller revealed Thursday that he has not heard from the U.S. boss. Sounds like he didn’t need to. “I’m not getting too far ahead of myself,” the 23-year-old said of a potential U.S. invite. “It’s only been a couple games.”

13. If you’ve watched even a few moments of the MLS is Back Tournament, you’ve seen those ubiquitous team-branded masks that players, coaches and support staff have been wearing everywhere but on the field. Turns out that one of the people behind them is none other than LAFC president and co-owner Tom Penn.

14. Penn founded Co.Protect, the company that has already distributed more than 10,000 of the high quality, logo-adorned disposable face coverings, to every team in the league. (Fans will soon be able to purchase the team branded masks on Co.Protect’s website.) It is also providing masks to players in the NBA and WBNA bubbles — both basketball leagues are set to resume in Florida starting next week — and is in discussions with other sports organizations, universities and government entities.

15. “The idea was born out of necessity,” Penn told me this week. “The question that we asked was, how are we going to get people to come back to our stadium and come back to sports and do it with a spirit and a sense of community? I just hated the idea of of a blue medical mask or a hodgepodge of different masks. It didn’t seem consistent with the notion of what team sports is.”

16. That “when people to come back to our stadium,” line may have caught your attention. So far, in many states (including California) there’s no telling when that will be. But as mask usage becomes the norm, there seems to be a growing realization among sports executives that fans will have to wear face coverings whenever arenas reopen their gates, at least until there is a viable treatment or vaccine for COVID-19.

17. “I believe that that will be the new best practice for large gatherings,” Penn said, adding that he sees event organizers handing out branded masks, hand sanitizers etc., as fans walk through the turnstiles.

18. I couldn’t let Penn go without asking him about LAFC, which trounced the rival LA Galaxy 6-2 last Saturday. No detail was overlooked during the construction of the club, which had played to packed houses since its inception and set a new regular-season points record last year. Could he have imagined how popular and successful the team has become since it entered MLS two years ago?

19. “The part that’s exceeded expectations,” Penn said, “is the performance on the pitch in terms of how quickly [general maanager] John Thorrington and [coach] Bob Bradley were able to assemble such a competitive team and create such a distinctive style of play that’s so aligned with our city.

“It was their leadership to say we’re gonna put together a cosmopolitan team that’s going to play on the front foot and be fun and exciting. Because that’s L.A.,” he added. “The notion of being young and on the rise was John’s vision and Bob’s execution. It’s just been great. I’m really grateful for that.”

LAFC co-owner Tom Penn helped distribute team-branded face masks for the MLS is Back Tournament. (Photo by Jerritt Clark/Getty Images for LA84 Foundation)
LAFC co-owner Tom Penn helped distribute team-branded face masks for the MLS is Back Tournament. (Photo by Jerritt Clark/Getty Images for LA84 Foundation)

20. Of course, Penn is also looking forward to eventually getting back into a sold-out Banc of California Stadium. “Our fans are amazing. They make the games so joyous,” he said. “That’s what’s so challenging now. We want to get back to the joy here at some point.”

21. It’s easy to marvel at how quickly LAFC has overtaken the Galaxy, the league’s most historically successful club, in just about every area. Saturday’s game, however, was closer than the scoreline would indicate.

22. That said, the Galaxy’s attack was mostly toothless without Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, who left Orlando on Tuesday after suffering a calf injury. Without Chicharito up top, Argentine World Cup vet Cristian Pavon was forced to move from the wing, robbing Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s shockingly shallow side of any attacking width.

23. There remains a sense that the Red Bulls were greater than the sum of their parts under former manager Jesse Marsch. That said, Marsch’s Red Bulls were stocked with proven MLS difference-makers such as Tyler Adams, Sacha Kljestan, Kemar Lawrence Dax McCarty, Luis Robles and of course, Bradley Wright-Phillips.

24. The Red Bulls have not adequately replaced any of those guys. That’s not on Chris Armas, whose team beat Atlanta in its tourney opener before dropping its final two group games to Columbus and Cincinnati.

25. Speaking of Atlanta, was any team a bigger flop in Florida? Then again, as with the Red Bulls, maybe we need to adjust our expectations considering the players the Five Stripes have lost since winning MLS Cup in 2018. Gone from that squad are Miguel Almiron, Yamil Asad, Greg Garza, Leandro Gonzalez Pirez, Julian Gressel, Darlington Nagbe, Michael Parkhurst and the injured Josef Martinez. Yikes.

26. Finally, you have to feel for Inter Miami. The expansion club co-owned by David Beckham had momentum heading into its its maiden campaign, even without any household names atop the bill. Then the pandemic hit, the home opener was cancelled and Miami went on to become the first club in league history to lose each of its first five league contests.

Yet Beckham has been through this before in MLS. When he joined the Galaxy from Real Madrid in 2007, the club tied Toronto in his first game, then lost six straight. Two seasons later, they reached MLS Cup before winning back-to-back titles in 2011-12. There will be brighter days ahead in Miami, too.

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