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Fans or not, Sounders planning to resume season

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While Sounders are writing off season tickets, MLS is reportedly preparing for 18 more regular season games.

Max Aquino / Sounder at Heart

The Seattle Sounders’ stay in Orlando ended with a disappointing 4-1 loss to LAFC in the quarterfinals of the MLS is Back Tournament, and now that they’ve returned to Seattle, they await a final decision from MLS on how the 2020 season will resume.

On the business side, the Sounders have already made a decision to effectively do a hard-reset on the 2020 season.

Having only played three of the 18 games in the season-ticket package — and with decreasing prospects that fans will return this year in meaningful numbers — the Sounders told season-ticket holders they could either have their remaining credit rolled over to 2021 or opt to have that money refunded.

Forgoing fans in the stands means a near complete loss of ticket, concessions and other game-day earnings for the year. That reality is hardly surprising in the context of the coronavirus pandemic, which has decimated revenue forecasts for teams in all sports across the world. And while some jurisdictions in the United States are allowing fans to attend games in limited numbers, the worsening situation in Washington makes it unlikely King Count will advance to “Phase 4” — which would allow fans inside stadiums — before the end of the season.

“Under current state and local guidelines, when we return to CenturyLink Field, we will not be allowed to play matches with fans in attendance,” the Sounders wrote in the email to fans. “Because we cannot reliably plan to host fans post-Orlando at this time, Sounders FC is officially moving forward with removing all unplayed 2020 matches from your season ticket package.”

The Sounders had previously offered season-ticket holders the option of an immediate refund, taking a “wait-and-see” approach, or going “all-in” for 2020. The final option is no longer available, though fans have the option of now going “all-in” for 2021. It is understood that the vast majority of fans have opted to roll over their tickets to the 2021 season.

A team source indicated the team decided the best course of action was to wipe the slate clean for the 2020 season, because the product they would be able to offer would be vastly different from what was originally announced on the schedule back in January.

The feeling in the Sounders front office was that, based on where things are right now, it’s highly unlikely the team would be able to immediately allow fans into the stadium — to say nothing of crowds in excess of 30,000 — assuming MLS’s plans to resume play in August come to fruition. If the situation changes and fans can return in October, for example, the team felt it would be unfair to charge season-ticket holders for a truncated season with a substantially modified schedule.

Whatever comes next from the league office is going to be an entirely new product to put in front of fans, the thinking goes.

The decision to announce this change now did not specifically have anything to do with the spike in cases in Washington — although the Sounders continue to monitor the situation — but was based on what the team was allowed to do by state and regional authorities. Right now it is clear that the team will not be allowed to play in front of fans by the time MLS planned to resume in August. Thus the decision to modify the season-ticket options was basically made for them.

With King County currently in Phase 2, the recent spike in cases does raise concerns about the Sounders even being able to play behind closed doors at CenturyLink. At this point indications are that the team is moving toward being able to play home games as soon as August, but the situation is fluid, and in the event there is a regression in phases, that could leave the Sounders (and Seahawks) unable to play in Seattle.

An option that is not currently on the table is a change of venue, such as Cheney Stadium, whose confines would seem to be more feasible since fans will not be in attendance. The thinking is apparently that CenturyLink is the Sounders’ home and they’d only not play there if forced out.

As reported by The Athletic, the initial proposal for a 2020 restart would see the season resume on Aug. 22, with each team playing 18 games through November. The season would then conclude with an 18-team playoff and the MLS Cup final on Dec. 12. The plan would allow teams to play in their home markets. One complication is a recent ruling in Canada that would not allow those three teams to play home games against U.S.-based opponents or easily travel between the countries. The league is apparently planning to have those teams play games amongst one another in the hopes of buying some time and then potentially playing “home” games in the United States if needed.

If the MLS season does resume and the Sounders do play at CenturyLink, the protocols will remain largely the same as they were pre-MLS is Back in regard to testing, authorized personnel at the facilities and the like, subject to approval from MLS and local officials. The Sounders were largely satisfied with how their protocols were followed by players, staff and employees. One positive test notwithstanding, the team said they had no issues. And concerns aside, it should be noted that the so-called “MLS Bubble” has reported no positive tests once teams were fully integrated inside the Orlando facility, as the issues that saw Nashville SC and FC Dallas removed from the tournament were believed to have originated prior to entry.

Of course, the success of any return to the field for the Sounders and MLS will depend on enforcement of the protocols; the discipline of the players, coaches and staff; learning lessons from the mistakes of others; and, most importantly, the virus itself.