The “MLS is Back” Tournament brought 26 clubs to ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, but trouble shook up the start of the tournament just days before it was to start.
Positive coronavirus cases leaked into the isolated bubble of MLS teams and staff, with FC Dallas and Nashville SC forced out of the tournament, narrowing the field to 24 clubs.
The outbreak was quickly controlled, with the rest of the league avoiding a chaotic derailing of the tournament.
MLS isn’t the only sports league seeking refuge in a bubble from the spiking coronavirus cases in Florida, but unlike the NBA and WNBA, the Florida sun provided an additional barrier.
Games featured unusual early morning and late-night kickoff times in a desperate attempt to avoid the blistering heat of the Sunshine State.
New York City FC took on the Philadelphia Union in the first ever 9 a.m. match in league history. The two clubs were expected to play a tightly contested match, but only Philadelphia lived up to those expectations.
For NYCFC, early season struggles and scoring woes continued.
City looked lost as a unit under new coach Ronny Deila, despite having a nearly identical roster as last year’s Eastern Conference-leading squad. Even with flashes of brilliance, City was unable to put away their chances or control the game.
After a goal-less first half, Ale Bedoya put the Union up 1-0 with a half-hour to go. The USMNT veteran’s shot took a late skip, bouncing off of the hands of Sean Johnson and into the net.
For a match with just a handful of chances for both sides, Bedoya’s goal would be the decider.
It was the third consecutive 1-0 loss for NYCFC in MLS, but City’s troubles were far from over heading into the second match of the group stage against 2015 expansion partners Orlando.
In a fixture that typically ended with clubs splitting the points, City found themselves chasing the game from the start.
Orlando opened up a 1-0 lead within the first four minutes of play, and doubled it six minutes later, both goals coming off crosses to Chris Mueller.
NYCFC looked even more lost than they did against Philly, chasing the game and giving the ball up under pressure.
Shortly before halftime, Jesus Medina finally scored the club’s first goal of the season. The Paraguayan controlled a pass outside the 18-yard box, perfectly striking a half-volley into the top corner.
The strike earned Medina a “Goal of the Week” nomination, but the shot was an outlier, with NYCFC’s attack again failing to impact the game. A third goal from Orlando put a nail in the coffin for NYCFC, as the club left the pitch with their tournament hopes already hanging by a thread.
NYCFC’s final group stage match came against the only club with a record to match theirs, taking on expansion side Inter Miami, who similarly stumbled into the final group stage match after four consecutive losses.
The battle of the bottom dwellers delivered another low-scoring affair, with fouls and theatrics more common than chances on net.
Following a water break in the second half, NYCFC found themselves with their first lead in a game this year.
Ismael Tajouri-Shradi darted behind the Miami defense, controlling a pass by Alexandru Mitrita with a fantastic first touch before sliding the ball past former NY Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles.
The 1-0 win, New York’s first triumph of the year, kept their hopes of advancing to the Knockout Stage slim, but alive. With just three points and a -2 goal difference, the perfect cocktail of results across the league would see them advance by the skin of their teeth.
With Deila quickly under scrutiny, the big question will be if the club can turn their season around like they did last year after an abysmal start to former coach Dome Torrent’s tenure.
After a horrid showing in Florida, a return home to rest up and train may not be for the worst with a monolithic task ahead of them. With just two goals on the season, one can only wonder if NYCFC left their scoring boots in Costa Rica, where Heber Araujo dos Santos notched a hat trick in a 5-3 win over AD San Carlos in February.