There were 80 new COVID-19 cases announced in Orange County, Fla., on Tuesday, up slightly from the 78 that were announced the day before.
But while that brought the area’s total to 2,542 confirmed cases in Florida’s fifth most-populous county – which contains the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex at Disney World – this is where Major League Soccer will resume its season on July 8.
Having last played meaningful games a little more than three months ago, on March 8, the league said Wednesday that its 25th season will recommence with a FIFA World Cup-style tournament featuring all 26 teams. Over the course of five weeks, those squads will play 39 round-robin games that will also count toward the MLS regular-season standing before moving into a knockout phase, with the overall winner earning a berth in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League.
But while the tournament will also feature a pot of US$1.1-million in prize money, for the teams taking part, that Champions League spot is the real icing on the “MLS is Back” cake.
“I think that’s the biggest incentive for us, for the future,” Vancouver Whitecaps head coach Marc Dos Santos told a media conference call. “Not knowing what will be next. … It’s all so much of a question mark [so] our focus as a club and as a team has to be solely on what we have to do in Orlando.”
Dos Santos has a valid point. While MLS commissioner Don Garber said the league’s plan after the tournament is for the season to resume with the completion of a modified regular season and MLS Cup playoffs in each team’s home market, he admitted he couldn’t put a timeline on that plan.
“I do believe we’ll get back to our markets,” he said. “I think all of our fans should expect that to happen. When that will happen is still uncertain, and whether or not we’ll have any markets with fans is also uncertain.”
For now, though, soccer fans across Canada can look forward to live action returning in less than one month. The draw for the tournament will take place Thursday, where it will generate five groups of four teams and one group containing six, including the host, Orlando City SC.
As Eastern Conference defending champions after last year’s MLS Cup final loss, Toronto FC will be a seeded team in one of the other two Eastern round-robin groups, alongside Atlanta United. Los Angeles FC, Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake will be the seeded teams in the Western Conference groups. For the sake of balance and geographical scheduling once the regular season resumes, Nashville SC will be moved to the East for the remainder of 2020.
In the tournament, the top two teams from each group will move into the knockout phase, along with the four best third-place franchises.
TFC president Bill Manning described the idea as a “really cool, unique format.” However, he seemed more excited to see a plan that had players getting back on the field and playing actual games. Players have been doing individual training at the team’s facility north of Toronto for a few weeks, but he added that full group training will commence on Monday.
One of the unique twists of the tournament will be the game times, with up to three matches taking place each day at 9 a.m., 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. (all eastern times). The average midday temperature for July in Orlando is around 32 C.
“It was decided that the games would be early and then late,” Manning said. “I think there was some real serious discussion and debate and I’m really glad that a number of coaches spoke up in that regard to put the players’ interests at the forefront.”
Rather than head down to Florida at the first available date (June 24), TFC, much like the Whitecaps, is planning to stay home and train locally for as long as possible. MLS is requiring teams to be in the Sunshine State at least one week before their first games for COVID-19 testing protocols.
In addition to being tested before flying down, once in Orlando players and staff will be tested every other day for the first two weeks. After that time there will continue to be regular testing, including the day before each game. In addition, the use of face masks, sanitizing and physical distancing will be enforced.
But while MLS employees such as players and coaches will be tested, the league has no jurisdiction over other workers such as hotel staff. Garber sees no reason to be concerned, however.
“There’s a difference between contact and there’s a difference between being in the vicinity,” the commissioner said. “I don’t think a bus driver is going to be in close contact with somebody walking on the bus, for example. So somebody cleaning their room is not necessarily going to be in close contact with the player.”
A positive test would see a player/coach placed into isolation and contact tracing used to discover and test those who have been within 10 feet of that person. But Garber added that there is no specific protocol for the number of positive tests that would necessitate the league significantly adjusting its tournament plans. Having taken the best part of three months to put together, Garber said that the league had hoped to resume play in the latter part of June. But while the delay was necessary to ensure a safe return, the MLS commissioner added that the tournament idea was crucial to just getting games back on in one central location, rather than waiting for individual jurisdictions to approve a return to play for each franchise.
“Getting out there and ensuring that we have the certainty to play games is crucial to the future success of the league,” he said.
Like everyone else, Dos Santos is hoping for the best, although given the world we’ve all been living in for the past three months, that comes with a certain amount of concern.
“For me to be here and say ‘zero concern, no problem at all,' I would be lying,” he said. “Of course it’s a little bit in the back of our heads and what we believe in is that MLS from now until the first day of the tournament … are going to take all the measures to be as secure as possible and we don’t have a doubt about that.”