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How MLS plans to return this summer

The league returns to play on July 8

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It has now been nearly a week since Major League Soccer came to terms with the players’ union on a modified Collective Bargaining Agreement that cleared the way for returning to play in 2020. The games would be the first since the league put a halt on its 25th season on March 12 due to the coronavirus pandemic with the 26 teams having played just two games apiece.

Despite that agreement, the league has yet to officially unveil its exact plan nor what the season might look like after. There have, however, been many reports surrounding those plans. While there are still a lot of unknowns, there’s at least enough out there that we have a good idea of what this season might look like. (Update: MLS made it official on June 10.)

What is the plan?

Keeping in mind that this has not been formally announced and is therefore subject to change, there’s been solid reporting suggesting that the basic framework has been set. The basics are these:

  • Teams would each play three games in what could broadly be called a “World Cup-style” group stage at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex near Orlando, Fla. These three games would all count toward the regular-season standings.
  • At the end of the group-stage, teams would move on to a 16-team knockout tournament where they’d play as many as four more games. These games would NOT count toward the regular-season.
  • In addition to some sort of cash prize and the glory of being crowned champion of a trumped-up preseason tournament, the winner will also get a spot in Concacaf Champions League.
  • The longest any team is expected to be in Orlando is six weeks, with teams eliminated earlier in the tournament going home once they’re done.

Can I attend?

Not unless you are deemed essential personnel by one of the teams or the league. Although the games will all apparently be nationally televised, they won’t be open to in-person spectators.

When does it start?

The latest reports suggested the goal was to start on June 24. But that’s only about two weeks away and it appears as though the timeline may have changed after negotiations took a bit longer than was probably hoped. With the NBA also apparently planning to use the Disney resort complex, it’s unclear if it’s even available for the preferred time. (Update: Teams can report as early as June 24, but the games will be played from July 8-Aug. 11.)

What caused the delay in negotiations?

The original plan MLS proposed was a bit more involved and would have required players to quarantine in Florida for as long as 10 weeks. Considering only players and team personnel will be allowed at the facility, that was seen as a particularly onerous ask. At the same time, MLS owners wanted players to accept a pay cut that started out as high as 50% before settling on something closer to 7.5%. MLS players, it should be said, are not nearly as well compensated as their contemporaries in other major North American sports leagues nor the top leagues in Europe, so any reduction was considered significant.

How are they making sure everyone stays healthy?

That was another predictable sticking point in negotiations. At one point, a pretty detailed plan was leaked to a reporter, causing the league to threaten fines of up to $1 million if anyone got caught sharing information with the press. That plan, which may have changed, called for players to be tested before and after they arrived in Orlando and then tested again before each game. It would have required something like 50,000 tests in total. (Update: MLS released the full health and safety protocol.)

What was the concern?

While that’s a lot of testing, there was a rather significant hole in the quarantine bubble that wasn’t being accounted for: hotel staff. Players expressed understandable concern about how safe they could be if hotel staff were still coming and going effectively as they pleased and maybe weren’t even being tested with anything like the same frequency. Even now, players haven’t gotten solid reassurances on those concerns.

How are players feeling about all this?

There are clearly some hard feelings, even if there seems to be a broad desire to starting playing games again. Players felt like the owners took an unnecessarily hard-line approach when they suddenly threatened a lockout toward the end of the negotiations, despite both sides showing a willingness to engage in back and forth. In addition to the testing concerns, there’s also some worries about going to Florida where coronavirus is still spreading at a concerning rate.

What happens after the tournament?

There’s at least a tentative plan to pick up the season at home stadiums at some point. That, of course, remains a big unknown. Part of why tournaments like this are proving so popular is that different markets have different levels of outbreaks and openness. For instance, the San Jose Earthquakes were only cleared to begin individual training last week while some teams have already started doing full-team training sessions.

What do fans think of the plan?

In Orlando, The Mane Land’s Michael Citro has observed a high degree of confidence in the plan working, at least by locals:

Fans are excited to get MLS back, despite not being able to attend. Even though the preference would be to enjoy the games at the local stadium as usual, this plan by Major League Soccer is being viewed as a positive overall. If anyplace can pull this off in a safe manner — and opinions are divided on that point, especially on the heels of a week with a sharp rise in coronavirus infections in Florida — it’s Orlando. The infrastructure sets up nicely for this type of tournament. The fields are in great condition, Disney World is an established, world-class event host, the ESPN infrastructure is in place for television, hotel space is ample, and the weather is generally compliant (if a bit hot and humid).

Others like Waking the Red’s Michael Singh is noticing a bit more measured response:

Eager to see their favorite players back on the pitch, fans North of the border, specifically in Toronto, were relieved to see MLS and the MLS Players Association reach an agreement to return to action. While there has been disappointment from some who were hoping to have clubs compete at home—and caution from others amid the COVID-19 pandemic—overall, Canadians, who have been very active on social media cheering on the likes of Alphonso Davies overseas, are excited to have their own local stars to cheer on once again.

Dirty South Soccer’s Joe Patrick sees some genuine excitement:

The most surprising thing that I’ve observed from Atlanta United fans is how hardened they are to the new reality facing the country as it battles the pandemic, and how that relates to Atlanta United’s immediate future. The day Don Garber announced MLS was suspending, one of the prevailing notions was that “at least it’ll help the injury situation at center back.” Even now, with the revelation that the regular season could be as short as ~17 games, Atlanta fans are heartened by the fact that the team’s six points accrued are carrying double the value they otherwise would. All these people care about is winning.

Sounder at Heart’s Mark Kastner, however, is a bit skeptical:

I don’t think it’s a great idea broadly or specifically. MLS’s plan seems so short-sighted and rooted in financial concerns rather than player or public safety. That there’s not even a concrete plan for whatever happens after this Orlando tournament is a giant red flag for me. Not to mention the tumultuous labor disagreement, when the owners threatened to lockout the players. All of it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. With the rest of the country hellbent on “reopening”, it’s hard to blame MLS for doing something like this. I can only hope they have proper testing equipment and players + staff can stay healthy.

Those concerns were echoed by Alicia Rodriguez of Angels on Parade:

I think the biggest contrast between MLS fans and other sports fans is a not insignificant proportion of season-ticket holders are really upset by the restart plan. With supporter group culture so big around the league and so much emphasis put on gameday atmosphere and community, not being able to participate in the matches like they normally would misses the point of the games, to an extent. For these fans, soccer is part of the experience, obviously, but tailgating/pregame rituals, drinking, seeing friends on a weekly basis and for some, chanting and standing for 90 minutes, is the actual experience. This is a time for compromise, to be sure, but I wonder if MLS fully understand the part about their league that makes them different in the U.S. and Canada won’t be replicated in Orlando, or maybe even for the rest of 2020.