After a period of uncertainty, MLS appears to have gotten its act together. They became the second major American sports league to announce specific plans to return on Wednesday and are now scheduled to begin a knockout tournament in Orlando on July 8.
Along with the NBA, who confirmed plans earlier this week, MLS will gather the whole league in Orlando over a period of a few weeks. A lockout once loomed, but the players and league managed to produce an agreement in time to plan games for early July. In hindsight, the league’s threat to lock out players may have been a bluff.
MLS is Back Tournament
As reported previously by The Athletic and ESPN, the tournament will begin with a group stage (six groups, divided by conference) leading into the round of 16. Group stage games count toward the regular season, which is supposed to continue in teams’ home markets after the conclusion of the tournament.
The winner of the MLS is Back tournament (yes, that’s the real name) gains a spot in the 2021 Concacaf Champions League, a fairly significant incentive. There are also roster bonuses for players on the table.
Interestingly, MLS decided that it will not play the national anthem at games, citing the lack of fans and the trouble with lining players up next to each other (and thus not complying with social distancing).
It would make sense for the league to make this step permanent — America is alone in its jingoistic devotion to playing the anthem — but it seems in this case that MLS is looking to avoid the divisive publicity that comes with kneeling. Commissioner Don Garber said that he “would hope that (players) would stand” but that he supports their right to a peaceful protest.
MLS first of US sports leagues to restart
MLS will be the first major American league to restart. Every tournament game will be televised on ESPN, Fox Sports, or Univision, making this a fairly significant opportunity for the league to pick up some new fans. There will be other soccer on by this point — the Bundesliga’s been playing for a few weeks now, and other major European leagues are restarting soon — but knockout games are attractive.
The league is also looking at “unique and experimental” broadcast elements, including more access to players and coaches and new camera angles. MLSsoccer.com’s mention of “fan integration elements” indicates that we could see pumped-in crowd noise.
The most obvious potential hiccup to this plan is the possibility of players testing positive. If a team deals with multiple positive tests, a wrench will be thrown into the plan. It’s not hard to imagine an outbreak at an individual club causing disruptions to games. While the league released a comprehensive plan for consistent testing and isolation protocols, there is no mention of what would happen if multiple players test positive.
There is also the possibility of a star player catching the disease and being forced to quarantine, creating a competitive disadvantage. If, say, the LA Galaxy are in the quarterfinals of the tournament and Jonathan dos Santos tests positive for Covid-19, LA would have to play without their crucial midfielder. This issue is likely more of a problem for the NBA, where superstars naturally wield more influence, but it could cause unavoidable problems for MLS as well.
For some players, there are questions whether they should risk playing in the tournament, either for personal health reasons or family considerations. Carlos Vela, whose wife is expecting their second child, is reported to be undecided on whether to play. Jordan Morris, a type-1 diabetic, is apparently playing. There will likely be other players who face decisions.
While these questions could affect the proceedings, protocols appear to be in place for the tournament to continue even if players test positive. The issue comes if a team has numerous players test positive. Still, MLS has the testing capability to make this work, and we should get four weeks (at least) of competitive MLS soccer.