Significant hurdles remain, but MLS and its players are discussing potential plans for the league’s return. The Athletic reported that the favored scenario for the league is quarantining players at the Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, starting play in early July and playing a tournament featuring all 26 MLS teams.
2020 MLS tournament format
This tournament would feature four groups, two from the Eastern Conference and two from the Western Conference. Three groups would have six teams each and one, an Eastern group, would include eight, with Nashville SC switching to the East to make even numbers. Two teams from each group would advance to an eight-team knockout stage after five games of group stage play.
The top seeds are reported to be Atlanta United, LAFC, the Seattle Sounders, and hometown Orlando City SC. From there, the groups will be drawn randomly. In theory, group stage games will count toward the regular season standings, with teams eventually returning to home markets and playing a shortened season.
ESPN’s Jeff Carslisle reported that while the league was targeting an early-June arrival date in Orlando to begin training, it is more likely that the date will be pushed to mid-June.
Approval still needed
The league still needs to gain approval from the players in order to proceed with this plan, and that has not happened. The Athletic cited Carlos Vela, Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez and Nani as notable players who have reservations. Vela’s wife is pregnant with his second child, making it difficult for Vela to quarantine himself in Orlando for two months.
There are likely other players who hold similar concerns over a potential “bubble” situation. Alejandro Bedoya voiced his publicly, telling ESPN’s Taylor Twellman that “this all feels a little bit rushed” and that quarantining in Orlando would be like a “luxurious prison.” One particular concern was that while players would not be able to leave the complex, hotel staff might be able to flow in and out.
It will be difficult for MLS to convince all of the players to quarantine themselves in Florida without their families for two months. MLS is desperate to return to games and make up some of its lost revenue, and while they won’t make money from fans buying tickets any time soon, they could see positive TV ratings if they return alone in the American sports world.
Will actual league play return?
They left open the possibility of finishing the regular season later in the year, in teams’ home markets. Trusting that America will have diminished the coronavirus crisis enough by that point to make that feasible feels optimistic. Germany, who brought the Bundesliga back with teams in their home stadiums, handled the pandemic much more effectively than the United States.
There is no indication as to what prize or trophy teams would be competing for in Orlando. It would essentially be a separate midseason tournament for the expressed purpose of giving Americans sports to watch. Fans are certainly craving sports and competition, but MLS has to find a way to make this scenario as safe and acceptable as possible for the players. The league is doing this for revenue, an understandable goal. We want the league back, but not if there is significant risk involved, or if the players are widely unhappy.
Still, these are positive signs for the league’s return. As hard as it may be to return in a country that struggled mightily in its response, leagues like MLS and the NBA are taking the necessary steps.