Here’s what you need to know about MLS’ return
By Victor Mather
Major League Soccer is the first of North America’s major men’s professional sports leagues to return, with a makeshift mini-tournament that was to begin Wednesday night. Here are the hows, whys and wheres for the event, which is taking place in Florida, one of the country’s coronavirus hot spots. The caveat is that the league’s plans could easily change: In the past few days, a game has been postponed and a team has dropped out of the field.
When do the games start?
The opener was a match between Orlando City SC and Inter Miami CF on Wednesday at 8 p.m. Eastern. Games will continue daily until the end of the group stage on July 23, and, to combat the summer heat, some will be played at the eye-opening hour of 9 a.m.
Where did things stand when we left off?
Each team in MLS managed to play two games before the pandemic halted the season.
Atlanta, Kansas City, Minnesota and Colorado were 2-0 in the early action. Cincinnati, New York City FC and the two expansion teams, Nashville and David Beckham’s Inter Miami, were pointless.
What’s the format of the new tournament?
The NHL will head straight to the playoffs, the NBA will briefly resume its regular season, and the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) is holding a short cup. MLS plans to use a mix of these elements.
Initially, teams will play in a newly created event, the suitably named “MLS Is Back Tournament.” Teams are divided into groups and will play three games each. The top two or three teams from each group, plus some of the best runners-up, will advance to the Sweet 16.
The group stage lasts until July 23, followed by a single-elimination playoff, with the final Aug. 11.
What comes after that?
The MLS has not announced a firm schedule, but the plan is to resume the regular season, preferably with teams back playing in their home stadiums. While there will be no fans at the Florida tournament games, the league hopes to begin reintroducing fans at some point this season.
Where are the games being played?
All games in the MLS Is Back event will be held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World. Players are staying in the Swan and Dolphin hotels there.
What’s being done for safety?
Players were tested for the virus before arriving, and testing, both exhaustive and expensive, will continue during the tournament. Players and staff on the bench for games must wear masks. Exchanging of jerseys and kissing the ball will be forbidden. And “players, coaches and officials are asked to exercise care when spitting or clearing their nose,” the league’s protocols say.
Will teams be motivated for the new event?
There are several incentives for teams to do well in the new tournament. The three group stage games will count toward the regular season once it resumes. There will be prize money. And the winner of the tournament will earn a berth in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League.
What happened to FC Dallas?
About a dozen MLS players have tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. Unfortunately, 10 of them are on the same team, FC Dallas. Because of this, the league decided to remove Dallas from the tournament, although the team will presumably return when the regular season resumes.
On Tuesday afternoon, the second scheduled game of opening day, Nashville-Chicago, was postponed because five Nashville players had tested positive after arriving in Florida.
Are all the players coming?
The vast majority are, but a few have opted out. Like the NWSL, which will resume without Megan Rapinoe, MLS will be down one of its marquee players: Carlos Vela of LAFC, the reigning Most Valuable Player. “It is in the best interest of the health of my family to stay home and be with my wife during what is a risky pregnancy,” he said in a statement.
At least a few other players and coaches have gone to Disney World but expressed trepidation.
Matt Lampson, a goalkeeper for the Columbus Crew who is a cancer survivor, tweeted last week: “For everyone in the ‘These are pro athletes. There is no risk. Nothing happens to them if they get the virus’ camp — I am high risk. And I know for a fact there are multiple others at #MLSisBack that are as well — including other players on their way here. This is serious.”
Brian Schmetzer, coach of the reigning champion Seattle Sounders, told a group of fans holding signs urging players not to go to Florida: “I understand it. It wouldn’t be my choice to leave, either. But we’re going to go play a game and do what Sounders do, which is win a soccer game.”
Given the withdrawals, how concerned is the league?
Commissioner Don Garber remained upbeat even after the news of FC Dallas’ withdrawal. “We have 550 players that have already been tested, and 13 of them have tested positive,” he told ESPN, before news of the further positive tests on Nashville’s squad. “Right now it’s an extremely low percentage. The players that are there are safe, they’re comfortable, they’re training, they’re eating, they’re recreating.”
He did also say, “We’re going to have to keep a close eye on it.”
What else will be different?
MLS will not play the national anthem before games. The stated reason is that there would be no point without fans, but the anthem has also become a flashpoint for controversy amid the Black Lives Matter protests. Many athletes have said they plan to kneel rather than stand for the anthem, and others, including President Donald Trump, have criticized those plans.
Garber reiterated last month that “If a player is looking to express their right to kneel during the national anthem, they should have the right to do so.”
Are there financial concerns?
At least four MLS teams applied to receive money from the Paycheck Protection Program, a federal loan program designed to help small businesses. The four teams, D.C. United, Inter Miami, Orlando and Seattle, asked for loans of between $1 million and $5 million.
What about the lower leagues?
The USL Championship, which includes a number of MLS farm teams, is to begin play Saturday, with games at home stadiums. The next lower division, League One, is to begin a week later. League Two has been canceled this year.