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MLS would be making a mistake to restart league under currently proposed plan

Risks are far too high to players and staff alike.

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Bayer Leverkusen v Indepediente Santa Fe - Florida Cup
The ESPN Wide World of Sports complex offers some hope, but comes with serious risks.
Photo by Rob Foldy/Bongarts/Getty Images

Details are slowly starting to come out regarding plans for MLS to restart its season, and they are understandably getting a bit of pushback from players. There are two main concerns, it seems: 1. Being isolated away from family for as long as 10 weeks; 2. Accepting a pay cut at the same time.

In case you’ve missed the news this week, multiple outlets have been reporting on plans that MLS is hoping to begin play with some sort of tournament at Disney World’s Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando. One report suggested that they’re hoping to fly teams out in as little as a couple of weeks, start playing games a few weeks after that and keep players, staff and all sorts of support staff there for as long as 10 weeks total.

Teams would play “competitive” games with some undetermined prize at the end of it. Maybe they’d count in the regular-season standings (assuming it happens), maybe the winner would get the Concacaf Champions League spot normally reserved for the U.S. Open Cup winner (again, assuming there is a CCL), maybe there’s a big cash payout or maybe it’s a combination of all of them. But there seems to be an understanding among organizers that there needs to be real stakes on the line if they are going to go to all the trouble of quarantining something like 1,500 people inside a state that has not yet seen a consistent decline in new coronavirus cases.

Adding further complication is that MLS has sent a proposal to the players’ union that is asking them to accept a 20 percent pay cut across the board.

From a purely human standpoint, it’s not hard to sympathize with players who might not be rushing to accept the MLS offer. In addition to being asked to fly across the country to be quarantined away from their families, they’re being asked to accept some sort of pay cut to do it. Anonymous players have pointed out that they’d often be turning their wives into single-parents overnight without being able to offer them the normal family or outside support to which they’d typically have access.

But the potential problems with this plan are considerably more widespread than those perfectly reasonable and relatable concerns.

Limited upside

By all appearances, the driving force behind the MLS plan is to become the first professional league in the United States to return to playing. I suppose there may be some public relations boon attached to such a label, but it feels pyrrhic at best. In a few months — and certainly not in a few years — no one is going to look back at what might well prove to be the darkest time in this country’s history and think, “Oh man, remember when MLS started playing games in Orlando in front of no fans? That was when I decided that I really wanted to follow this league!”

I understand that MLS is looking at losses that could be ticking into the hundreds of millions of dollars and that even billionaires care when the numbers get into nine digits, but what’s the financial upside to a tournament that lasts 4-6 weeks? A few million dollars? Even the most optimistic revenue projections — which must include some kind of goodwill payment for a future broadcast contract — can’t possibly be more than a drop in the bucket for the “astronomical” losses owners are looking at incurring.

I’m also not remotely convinced that these games — played in these sort of circumstances — offer anything approaching compelling TV for the neutral sports fan. I suppose the argument is that we are all so starved of new content that droves will tune in simply because “live sports”, but to the degree that the wider American sports audience has taken an interest in soccer, it’s for the highest-stakes games with the best possible atmospheres. For a viewing public who only watches soccer during the World Cup or maybe the random Champions League final, these games will seem only the vaguest facsimile.

However compelling these games will be to fans of the given teams — and maybe even to the broader MLS fan base — the upside is going to be limited.

Considerable downside

And let’s not pretend that whatever upside the league is looking at isn’t balanced out by a considerable downside. This is all being planned in the shadow of a worldwide pandemic and in a state that is openly flouting reasonable mitigation suggestions. The state’s own website suggests that people should not attend “large gatherings.” Even without fans, there’s almost no way that MLS could safely host a match with fewer than 100 people in attendance, 10 times as many people as Florida’s guideline suggests is safe.

Those are just the games. Any attempt to make “life in the bubble” feel ordinary will come with its own risks. Will players and staff be allowed to move freely around the resorts? Can they lounge at the pools? Eat in the restaurants and buffets? My suspicion is an across-the-board “no” as any group activity will increase the chances of a widespread outbreak. More likely, the players will only be allowed to congregate for training sessions and games. In many ways, I suspect their non-soccer playing lives will be even more isolated than they are now. Again, the current proposal suggests they might need to be prepared to do this for up to 10 weeks.

None of these safeguards will, of course, completely immunize anyone. The plan is heavily reliant on the ability to widely test the entire contingent of people. That could mean a couple tests a week in addition to testing players and gameday staff before every game. Some quick calculations suggest MLS will need to have access to something like 30,000-70,000 tests in order to pull this off. That translates to about 1,000 tests per day. Testing is now becoming more readily available, but there are still states that are only running a fraction of that. Even if MLS can obtain that many tests, there are very real philosophical concerns about obtaining them when average citizens still can’t get them when needed.

But even assuming they can get them and feel justified in doing so, it’s almost inevitable that some of those tests will come back positive. When they do, the league will have to figure out how to effectively implement quarantines among a group who is ALREADY quarantined. Will that person’s entire team then need to be put into an even tighter quarantine? Can that team still be allowed to compete in games? If one team is stopped from playing games, can the others go forward?

In Germany, when some Dynamo Dresden players tested positive, the team was pulled off the 2. Bundesliga schedule for two weeks with the idea that they’d simply make up the games later in the season. That’s going to pose some real challenges, but is at least theoretically possible since they’re playing nine games spread out over roughly six weeks. Will MLS have that kind of flexibility? Considering players will have been off for the equivalent of a full offseason, expecting them to play more than a game per week after just three to four weeks of training creates serious injury concerns. Playing at least five games in about a month is going to be asking a lot regardless. Asking them to play those games in an even smaller timeframe might be impossible. It’s not hard to see how even one positive test could effectively unravel the entire enterprise.

If there’s a more widespread outbreak, we could see a league-wide quarantine that suddenly looks an awful lot like one of those cruise ships that’s stuck out at sea. Players and staff could be stuck at a resort for an indefinite period, possibly infecting one another.

Then, of course, there’s the actual danger that coronavirus poses even to healthy athletes. While the vast majority of them may be able to weather the virus in a way that leaves them asymptomatic, we know that people like Jordan Morris — who has diabetes — are considered to be “high risk.” There are also a good deal of coaches and player personnel who fall into that category for a variety of reasons. Just one serious case would be “catastrophic” to the league’s image, to say nothing of the real implications for that person and their family. There’s also the reality that so little is known about the long-term effects of COVID-19, even in those with mild symptoms.

Finally, I can’t escape the feeling that this is all sort of a “bridge to nowhere.” Even if the league can obtain the testing, can create a safe environment and pulls it off without any serious hitches, what next? It’s highly unlikely the league is going to be able to play games hosted in home stadiums — even without crowds — until mid-August, and that’s optimistic. Right now, we have no idea when they might be able to do that and even less of an idea as to when fans will be able to safely attend. If MLS has strong assurances that it can go from this tournament into something resembling the regular season, this feels like it at least serves some sort of grander purpose. But without that destination on the horizon, this whole project feels like a pointless spectacle designed to win a few PR points at an enormous risk to all involved.

Alternate solutions

Lest you think I’m only offering criticisms without any solutions, allow me to offer one:

  • Hold off on planning anything until all teams have been cleared to resume full training.
  • Once they’ve done that, give them another 3-4 weeks to get into something resembling playing shape.
  • After local governments have indicated that teams will eventually be allowed to host empty-stadium games throughout the league, schedule a “World Cup-style” tournament that will at last lead into the regular season. The tournament’s games will count toward the regular-season standings and the winner will get a CCL berth.
  • Resume a shortened regular season that will lead into a re-imagined playoff format.
  • Work with the players’ union to defer some portion of payments until a full-regular season can be played.

This plan has problems, I’m aware. It still pulls players and staff away from families at a stressful time, but it’s for about half as long as the current plan and would be done when more resources are presumably available to make home-life more manageable. We’re still facing the prospects of playing games without fans, which is hardly ideal, and there is also an inherent level of risk still present. Those final two elements, though, might be somewhat unavoidable until there’s a vaccine and even under the best-case scenario, that’s probably a year off. I harbor no illusions that any league is going to willfully wait that long to resume play.

The choices MLS has are far from ideal, and I don’t envy anyone in a position that has to make them. But the plan as presented offers very limited upside and carries immense risk to the well-being of real people. MLS faces the very real possibility of making a bad situation for worse if it goes ahead with it.

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