LINE: Portland +175 | Draw +250 | Orlando City +143
KICK OFF: Tuesday, August 11th, 8:30PM EST
WHERE: ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex (Orlando, Florida)
At the beginning of the summer, the prospect of a successful MLS tournament in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic seemed fraught, at best. There were labor issues — a lockout loomed at one point — and the concept of a bubble hadn’t been proven effective yet. Teams dealt with coronavirus cases and eventually two teams had to pull out.
Today is the final of the MLS is Back tournament, between the Portland Timbers and a surprise Orlando City SC, and we can look back on the whole thing with fondness. It was an exciting, seamless display of soccer, and it proved to the sports world that bubbles work. (The NWSL was the first, and so far only, league to make a non-bubble work.)
The MLS bubble worked
After FC Dallas and Nashville SC withdrew, it seemed possible that this could all blow up. The opposite happened: the tournament coalesced into a safe, thrilling endeavor that produced quality soccer. The winner will claim a legitimately important trophy, carrying a trip to the Concacaf Champions League and, if the rest of the season doesn’t completely pan out outside the bubble, 2020’s only MLS title.
We’ve seen now that other leagues have made bubbles work. The NBA is nearing the end of its seeding games in the same Orlando complex where MLS is holed up. The NHL is starting its playoffs in two separate bubbles, in Toronto and Edmonton. The WNBA is proceeding smoothly in Bradenton, Florida. MLS was the first.
Until the pandemic is over, bubbles seem like the only sustainably safe option to play sports. (Bigger leagues will likely have a tough time replicating the NWSL’s success.) MLB is pushing through postponed games and has to deal with players who are breaking quarantine rules. It remains to be seen whether the NFL is going to be able to make this work without a bubble. College football is a sprawled mess.
In America, where there is no chance the powers that be will have any interest in corralling the virus, a vaccine is the only chance for sports to proceed without too much question, the way they have in Europe and various competent countries. A bubble is sustainably safe, but far from an ideal long-term option.
MLS is Back a model for future domestic tournaments?
The excitement of the group stage and knockout games has raised questions over whether MLS should look into continuing this style of tournament, perhaps in place of a conventional preseason. An annual MLS is Back-style tournament would add high stakes games and another valuable trophy to the ledger. Everyone loves knockout games.
But even if those tournaments are happening when bubbles are not necessary, the league can’t ask its players to show up every year in some centralized location and play out a tournament. That’s the thing with these bubbles: they’re a one-time endeavor, a solution that allows sports to persist through the pandemic. Players are away from their families. This should be a one-time thing. If there’s a way to play a tournament like this in home markets (complementing the US Open Cup), go for it.
MLS regular season returns soon
After the final, regular season games resume almost immediately in home cities. FC Dallas wants to put fans in the stadium for some reason. Given the way cases are rising in so many places around the country, and with the reopening of schools likely to up those cases even more, it’s fair to question the viability of games in home markets. Players have to be trusted to make the right decisions. There will be positive cases and postponements, as commissioner Don Garber has admitted.
In the meantime, MLS can take pride in the way it handled its MLS is Back tournament. It felt important throughout, and we’ve seen plenty of players and teams break out over the past month or so. Not long after it seemed like a fool’s errand, the tournament has emerged as a resounding success.