Unless you have been living under a rock, you know MLS returns on July 8. However, this return to MLS action occurs in a format different than what most fans are used to. The MLS is Back Tournament provides fans with a chance to see their favorite teams back in action. As part of a tournament that features both a group stage and knockout stage, FC Cincinnati is in a group with the two teams the club played before the 2020 MLS season was postponed — Atlanta United and New York Red Bulls — and bitter rivals Columbus Crew SC.
Although it might be tempting to run out a starting lineup featuring the best 11 players, the MLS is Back Tournament provides FC Cincinnati with a chance to learn more about the players who might have been overlooked if the 2020 regular season occurred as scheduled. Below is a list of reasons as to why FCC needs to utilize the MLS is Back Tournament to look toward its future rather than trying to win in the present.
Jaap Stam can use the MLS is Back Tournament as an impactful exercise
Despite the fact that winning matches in this tournament would be nice, new FC Cincinnati coach Jaap Stam needs to understand the team dynamics before coaching the club in matches with results that will impact them for more than a couple weeks. Based on the resources that are available to him, Stam is more likely to know about his starting XI than the players that fill out the rest of the roster.
Believe it or not, FC Cincinnati actually caught a break with the scheduling of this tournament. Normally a team that fires its head coach early into the season, or in the case of FCC right before the season began, are at a major disadvantage. Just look at last season. FCC had to promote a coach within the organization who was immediately thrown into the spotlight with a group of players that performed at a subpar level over a long stretch of time.
Due to the delay from COVID-19, FCC did not lose any matches outside of the first two to begin the season. Stam has been provided with a pressure-packed opportunity to look at his whole roster. It is a great opportunity to figure out team dynamics, player personalities, locker room dynamics, and tactics on the pitch.
A chance to identify and evaluate which young players have MLS-caliber talent
Environments such as spring training in Major League Baseball and the summer league in the NBA provide professional sports teams with a chance to evaluate young players in actual games rather than just through drills and scenarios ran in practice. However, the ability to identify the talent levels of these players are typically limited in this type of environment, as they are typically going up against fellow rookies or players that are perceived to have the same skill level. With a congested schedule, this tournament could showcase how these young players perform when they compete against top-tier talent in MLS.
These three group stage matches count towards the 2020 season standings. These valuable matches could provide FC Cincinnati and Stam with a perfect opportunity to truly evaluate the young players on its roster without using a bulk of regular-season games.
Goalkeeper Ben Lundt performed very well for Louisville City before suffering an ankle injury in mid-June and missing the rest of the season. Even though he is technically on loan once again with Louisville City, this tournament could provide the perfect opportunity for FC Cincinnati to learn more about its 2019 MLS Superdraft pick. After all, Przemyslaw Tyton is 33 years old.
What about FCC newcomers Zico Bailey and Brandon Vazquez? At 19 and 21 years old respectively, there is a lot to learn about these players. Are they just bench players, or could they turn into meaningful contributors that help FC Cincinnati down the road?
Don’t forget about Tommy McCabe and Rashawn Dally, two rookies that played for the Orange and Blue in its inaugural MLS season. This tournament provides the club with a chance to see if these players fit into Stam’s system and style of play. These young players will be put into an environment will they will need to perform up to a high level and be evaluated against top-end league talent.
This tournament is likely to benefit younger players and be detrimental to veteran players
If a veteran player performs well during this tournament, it will likely not have a major impact on their ability, as they are expected to perform well in almost any situation. However, if a younger player has a strong performance in this tournament, they are likely to receive a confidence boost that can enhance their play going into the remainder of the season.
Many professional athletes have noted that while talent is important to perform well in professional sports, having confidence in yourself can help boost your talent level up a notch.
In this tournament, the youth will have a chance to feature due to a congested schedule. Let them play, gain confidence, while allowing the veterans to slowly prepare for the remaining approx. 29 matches we expect to see once the “normal” regular season resumes.
Let’s be real, FC Cincinnati is not going to win this tournament
I hate to bring more negative energy to this club, but I do consider myself to be a realist. The best-case scenario for FC Cincinnati is that even if the club plays its best players, they might scrape together just enough points to advance past the group stage, only to lose to a top-tier team in the first round of the knock out stage. By playing your best 11 players, not only do you prevent younger players from gaining valuable experience against talented players, but you also give away your future game plan when the remainder of the season resumes.
Although winning the MLS is Back Tournament would be nice, it is also unlikely that this piece of silverware would have much long-lasting impact on the success of the club. It just doesn’t have the same feel as winning the U.S. Open Cup or the MLS Cup. Rather, it is more beneficial for FC Cincinnati to use these games to better position itself towards learning which young players can contribute towards the club making the playoffs and competing for an MLS Cup in future years.
I know that it is difficult to ask for fans to go through this process again, but it could produce benefits that are far greater than finishing mid-tier in a one-off tournament. Potentially losing games, especially to Columbus, just to find out a little bit more about our youth, is not enjoyable. Then again, if Crew supporters don’t count FC Cincinnati beating them in the 2017 U.S. Open Cup, then a victory in the MLS is Back Tournament certainly doesn’t count. Plus, that’s only if FC Cincinnati loses. I wouldn’t count the Orange and Blue out against Columbus yet.
Correction: An earlier copy of this article had incorrectly listed that the MLS is Back tournament does not count towards the 2020 MLS regular season standings. The article has been updated to reflect this initial error.