The New York Red Bulls and Major League Soccer are back after an extended suspension.
After four months of a COVID-19 induced suspension, teams will begin to play at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida next month.

While the regular season is still on halt technically, all 26 clubs will take part in the newly announced MLS is Back Tournament with group stage games counting toward the regular-season standings.

The Bulls were drawn into Group E of the tournament, which includes its recent rival Atlanta United FC, FC Cincinnati, and Columbus Crew SC. Games are set to begin July 8, opening with state-rivals Orlando City SC taking on Inter Miami CF. The top two teams from each of the six groups, along with the four best third-place teams, will progress to a knockout style bracket similar to the FIFA World Cup.

Last time fans saw the Red Bulls, the team was in the midst of a slow, if not pleasant, start to the season.

A 3-2 win over FC Cincinnati in the season opener at home, including a breakout performance by Kyle Duncan, was followed up by a disappointing draw on the road to Real Salt Lake.

On March 12, three days before the team was set to hit the road and battle 2019 U.S. Open Cup runner-up Minnesota United, MLS announced the season would be suspended as the country began to feel the full effects of the coronavirus. Initially set for 30 days, multiple suspension extensions have gotten the league to this point.

As states begin the process of re-opening, along with New York City entering Phase 2 of its plan, normality has been trying to return around the world.

Kyle Duncan celebrates scoring the opening goal in the New York Red Bulls home opener versus FC Cincinnati on March 1, 2020 (Photo: Major League Soccer)

The team will have more to play for than just the regular season when the Orlando tournament starts next month. MLS revealed that the winner will receive an automatic spot in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League. U.S. Soccer usually awards these berths to the MLS Cup Champion, Supporters Shield winner, the other regular-season conference champion, and the U.S. Open Cup champion, however, the federation has re-allocated the non-shield winning conference champion spot for the returning tournament. The other remaining berths are remaining as they are for the time being.

The still postponed 2020 CCL tournament, which includes RBNY’s rival New York City FC in the quarterfinal, continues to be suspended with no new information on a potential restart.

Additionally, according to MLS, the tournament “will give players the opportunity to earn additional bonuses as part of a $1.1 million prize pool.”

Despite not being close to the playoff portion of its season, starting in late February and only getting through two weeks of the regular season before going on suspension, MLS is following in the footsteps of similar U.S. sports leagues such as the NHL and NBA. Both of those have plans to begin to play in hub locations (2 cities for the NHL, 1 for the NBA) with isolated players and team staff in order to resume play and crown champions (in basketball’s case determine the final playoff seedings).

MLS has a chance to be both safe and forward thing, keeping the potential for virus spreading low while also giving fans and the general public more incentive to watch (regular season & tournament).

All of this comes together just a week after the league announced both the initial plans for the tournament and a restructured collective bargaining agreement between MLS and the player’s union that will run until 2025. This news put fans at ease as another notable major U.S. sports league, Major League Baseball, continues to battle in the public eye as both team owners and players argue over a COVID structured season

The big question here will be what can we expect to see in this tournament, especially from New York? Will it escape the group stage or will shortcomings set the team back both in the competition and forthcoming regular season?

Going into Orlando, predicting outcomes is going to be more difficult than usual. The Red Bulls have never lost a regular-season game against Atlanta and already have a win over Cincinnati this year. When it comes to Columbus, going back to 2017 the team has only had one win against the fellow MLS original (though that came in as a critical 3-0 win in the 2018 Eastern Conference Semifinals second leg).

The team announced it was returning to full team training today, June 11, at its training facility in East Hanover, NJ. Prior to this, some training had begun as players began to prepare for an eventual return to play. It can almost be considered a second pre-season albeit without the friendly tournaments against other MLS or USL sides.

The good part about this is more players will be at 100% going into the group stage. Any lingering injuries have had months to rehab. In both regular-season games earlier this year, USMNT defender Aaron Long was listed as “probable” with a hamstring injury. Both of those games say defensive miscues late. It goes without saying that, barring a flare-up of the injury during training, Long returning to the backline with Amro Tarek and company will bring much-needed stability.

On that note, Atlanta will likely be without star striker Josef Martínez as he continues to recover from an ACL tear. Columbus meanwhile will finally be able to see former loan turned full signing Milton Valenzuela take the field again following a torn meniscus along with Waylon Francis who also had a nagging injury.

Teams will have a chance to play totally different styles than we last saw. Be it a mix of returning players, clearing off the rust, playing in new environments, and more. Offenses that may have seemed too inconsistent in February will be going against backlines that haven’t played a competitive game since early March. Plus unlike a pre-season, scrimmages against other teams won’t be as easy to organize since social distancing and travel restrictions are still in place.

All MLS sides will be in Orlando starting June 24, a full two weeks before the tournament begins. But typically teams play their final friendlies of the pre-season about two weeks prior to the regular season starting.

New York will need to play this tournament as both a competition (obviously) and as a chance to gather regular-season points. Playing for a draw might be good for the competition but coach Chris Armas will also need to consider how valuable 3 points are down the road in a shortened season. It will be a battle of possible short term glory (unless New York wins the whole thing) versus playing the long table game.

Even with the uncertainties and hurdles that are being presented, both fans and team staff are ready to see games back on the pitch.

“We are all very excited about the return of our league with the MLS is Back tournament,” said RBNY Sporting Director Denis Hamlett in the team’s press release. “Our players and staff have been working hard to make sure we are ready to compete. It will be a new and unique experience for all of us. We look forward to getting back to competitive games in an environment that puts (the) health and safety of everyone involved first.”

Current odds, according to puts New York as an 18/1 favorite. Rivals NYC, DC, PHI, and ATL sit at 9/1, 33/1, 25/1, and 15/2 respectively.

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