Major League Soccer is moving en masse to Florida, taking over a Disney hotel for a World Cup-style tournament that will run July 8 through Aug. 11.
All 26 teams will take part in the “MLS is Back Tournament” at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort in the Orlando area.
The NBA is also looking to resume play at the Disney complex.
For MLS, whose franchises are currently facing a patchwork mix of local health and government restrictions due to the global pandemic, the Disney complex offers the hotels, fields, infrastructure and freedom to stage the 54-match tournament.
“There is no better company (Disney) to provide us with the certainty of being able to manage all of the operational needs of putting what is nearly 2,000 people into one environment for what will be four to five weeks,” commissioner Don Garber told a media conference call.
Florida has been one of the first U.S. states to open its doors to pro sports with the WWE and UFC already having staged events there.
The MLS tournament, which will be played before empty stands, marks a resumption to the league’s 25th season, which was halted March 12 after two rounds due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The hope is the league, once the Florida tournament is completed, can continue the regular season with a revised schedule in home markets.
“We do not have yet exposure as to what the future for the MLS schedule will look like in 2020 and how many markets will have fans, if any,” said Garber.
The tournament will see teams play three group stage matches across 16 days. The top two in each of the six groups along with the four best third-place finishers will then move on to the knockout stage: round of 16, quarter-finals, semi-finals and final.
The three group stage matches will count in the regular-season standings.
“It’s a good day, it’s a very good day,” said Whitecaps sporting director Axel Schuster.
Games will begin at 9 a.m., 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. ET with most taking place in the evening, the league said. The early and late starts were chosen because of the Florida weather. Games will be televised.
The tournament draw is to be held Thursday. Garber said the competition will carry a US$1.1 million prize pool.
Players will receive prize money for each win throughout the tournament, as well as for advancing to the round of 16. The league did not provide a more detailed breakdown.
Of interest to Canada is that the tournament winner, regardless whether it is an American or Canadian club, will earn a spot in the 2021 Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League.
The winner will take the Champions League spot usually awarded to the MLS regular-season points leader in the conference opposite of the 2020 Supporters’ Shield winner.
That means Canada could get two berths in the CONCACAF Champions League. The Canadian Championship winner also qualifies, although details of this year’s tournament have yet to be announced.
Canada Soccer will decide who the second team will be if the same team wins the MLS tournament and Canadian Championship. The Canadian Championship runner-up would be a likely choice.
CONCACAF says Canada will still get a berth in the Champions League, separate from the MLS tournament, if there is a Canadian winner.
While clubs will begin arriving in Orlando as early as June 24 for “pre-season training,” Toronto FC president Bill Manning said his team won’t head to Florida until early July, so as to minimize the time away from their families. The league requires teams to arrive a week before their first game and Manning says he expects that to be between July 8 and 13.
“It was very important to the players and the staff to be here with their families,” he told a media conference call. “Now that we’ve been given the green light to train as a team (as of next Monday), we’re most comfortable here at home ... There was no reason for us to go down to Orlando any earlier.”
Schuster said the Whitecaps – like Toronto – would stay at home as long as possible, arriving one week before their first game.
Players considered to be in a high-risk category for severe illness related to COVID-19 will not be permitted to take part in the tournament unless cleared by their club’s chief medical officer.
They can also elect not to go, if they are worried about existing health issues or their families.
Manning said he expected all of his players to be available for the tournament, including captain Michel Bradley and Argentine winger Pablo Piatti who have yet to play this season due to injury.
Star striker Jozy Altidore has been at his home in Florida for some time. A club spokesman said the team was working through the current regulations to determine whether it makes sense to bring Altidore back to Canada or meet him in Florida.
Whitecaps coach Marc Dos Santos said he expected all his players to be available for the tournament.
Players will be tested before leaving for Orlando and upon arrival, with clubs travelling by charter. The idea is to create a bubble around all the personnel involved to reduce the risk of infection.
Players, staff and officials will be tested every other day during their first two weeks in Florida. They will be tested “regularly” after that, including the day before each match.
If an individual tests positive as part of routine testing, they will be isolated with contact tracing undertaken.
Asked if he was concerned about the risks of taking his team to Florida, Dos Santos acknowledged it was “a little bit in the back of our heads.”
‘What we believe in is that MLS from now until the first day of the tournament ... (is) going to take all the measures to be as most secure as possible. We don’t have a doubt in that.“
Having said that, he noted people are always at risk with the virus – be it in B.C. or Florida.
Orlando City SC, as host club, will be the top seed in Group A, which will feature six teams and open play July 8.
The other five seeds are the four semifinalists from the 2019 playoffs – Toronto FC, Atlanta United, Los Angeles FC and the Seattle Sounders – plus Real Salt Lake, the team with the next highest points total in the Western Conference from the 2019 season.
The draw will assign the remaining nonseeded 20 clubs to groups, depending on conference.
The Eastern Conference, which will become home to Nashville SC for the remainder of the 2020 season, will have three groups – one consisting of six teams and two consisting of four teams each. The Western Conference will have three groups, each consisting of four teams.
The tournament will allow teams five substitutions a game and feature video review. Teams will be able to dress 24 players for matches.
Matches tied at the end of regulation time in the knockout phase will go straight to a penalty shootout. Garber said the league is dispensing with pre-game anthems.
Players, coaches and officials on the bench or technical area will be required to wear masks and practice social distancing “to the extent possible” during matches. Players involved in the game are being asked not to exchange jerseys or kiss the ball.
The July 8 tournament start comes after the midway point of the original schedule. Toronto FC, for example, would have played 22 of its 34 regular-season games under its original schedule by then while the number would have been 20 for Montreal and 21 for Vancouver.