Back on March 7 — before the world as we knew it was turned upside-down — the Seattle Sounders were coming off a disappointing home draw against the Columbus Crew. Discussions about needing a re-taken Raúl Ruidíaz penalty to salvage a point at home aside, it’s safe to say that nobody expected it would be more than four months until the Sounders’ next competitive match. But that is the exact scenario the Sounders find themselves in, as MLS announced on Wednesday the format for what is being billed as the “MLS is Back” tournament.
Clunky names notwithstanding, the World Cup-style tournament will feature all 26 MLS sides in a group stage preliminary round, followed by a knockout stage to crown a champion. To add stakes to what seems like a glorified preseason fitness camp, the group-stage games will count toward the regular season standings — assuming it resumes. What the teams can count on, however, is a $1.1 million purse, as well as a Concacaf Champions League berth in 2021.
With about 2,000 people essentially sequestered in a DisneyWorld resort, there are countless questions about the logistics, safety and viability of this tournament. But setting that aside for the moment, the Sounders are looking forward to the tournament, and the chance to resume defending their title.
“We are so excited to get back to playing soccer,” said Sounders general manager and president of soccer Garth Lagerwey. “The Sounders have historically done OK in tournament format, so hopefully we can start our title defense in Orlando in early July.”
Now that the wheres and the hows have been settled, head coach Brian Schmetzer said he senses a bit more excitement about returning to play competitive games, even if the format is a vast departure from the regular season.
“We are excited [and] you can feel a little bit of buzz in the training,” Schmetzer said. “I’ve been trying to message the guys that we are back, we are going to defend our title. This is big news and this is something you strive to do as athletes and as Seattle Sounders. The guys seem to be excited to get out on the field and compete.”
Schmetzer said the team is close to getting the approval from MLS and government officials on starting full team training, and Lagerwey elaborated that it could potentially happen as early as this week.
“If as Garth says we get the final boxes checked and we’re in to full team training, we’ll ramp that up fairly quickly,” Schmetzer said. “We’ll have intersquad scrimmages right away. We’ll make sure we do as much as we can to protect the athletes because they’re the assets of the club.”
Additionally, to mitigate some of the issues with the potential time away from home — some teams will be gone as long as six weeks — Lagerwey said MLS is allowing teams to stay in their home market until a week before their first game. Lagerwey said the Sounders will wait as long as possible before going to Florida.
One of the questions surrounding this experiment centers around the potential effects of the long layoff. By the time this tournament starts, almost exactly four months will have passed since the last competitive MLS game was played. And no matter how MLS tries to dress up the event, the bottom line is that these games will be played by players not in full fitness, not in their home stadiums, in front of no fans and in a format that is a vast departure from a normal season. According to Schmetzer it will be up to the teams to display the desire and professionalism to ensure that the games are of sufficient quality, especially with a potential for a large audience tuning in.
“The quality is going to be up to how seriously everybody’s gonna take it,” Schmetzer said. “I can only speak for myself and this club and this organization: We treat every game the same. We want to win whether it’s a preseason game or a ‘MLS is Back’ tournament style. I think our team is good in these tournament formats. The quality of the games are going to be high and if they’re competitive.
“I think that CCL spot, the prize money, the guys wanting to be back, our players wanting to defend the championship, I think there’s a lot of coaches motivation. There’s a lot of reasons why those games can be good games.”
- One source of contention in the CBA negotiations with the players was on the issue of high-risk players or players with special circumstances, such as pregnant spouses. In a press conference, MLS Commissioner Don Garber noted that players in those categories would not be required to go. Sounders midfielder Jordan Morris could potentially qualify as a Type-1 Diabetic, but all indications are he is ready to play.
- Lagerwey noted that the team is essentially capped out for this year, but he implied that there will be some additions to the team later this week. Several Tacoma Defiance players were rumored to be signed prior to the suspension of the season. “We have 26 signed players, or we will by the time that Disney is announced,” Lagerwey said, a number that would require two additions.
- Schmetzer said that all available first team players will travel with the team to Orlando. “We’re taking everybody,” Schmetzer said.