Major League Soccer announced their return to regular season play Saturday morning, with a phased approach that will see each team playing six games through the first 10 days of September.
After that, it’s wait and see.
Having seen a successful Orlando experiment for the MLS is Back tournament, with no canceled games due to positive tests through the duration of the month-long tournament, MLS will now attempt to scale that bubble nationwide as they hope to be able to conclude the season that was cut short with the explosion of the coronavirus pandemic early this spring.
“Since suspending play in March, we have been working on plans to play as much of our season as possible, beginning with the tournament in Florida and resuming in our local markets following the competition,” Commissioner Don Garber said in a release. “We remain focused on the health and safety of our players, coaches and staff, and look forward to continuing our season in our home markets.”
Only announcing six games will allow the league to measure how well each team implements the league’s protocols and, frankly, how well everyone can behave themselves.
The MLS is Back tournament got off to a rocky start, as FC Dallas and Nashville SC were expelled before they even started due to mass positive tests on each team. Those cases are believed to have occurred prior to arriving in Orlando, though the cause of those tests is more rumor than fact. But as the tournament commenced, the league appeared to hit its stride, with only two positive tests out of over 35,000 administered, according to Garber.
“Our experience in Orlando taught us a lot; it’s going to guide us,” Garber said. “We’ve had issues and challenges and we dealt with them just through our focus and commitment of our players and staff to understand that our purpose was to play games.”
However, without the enforced strict adherence of a bubble, the risk of positive tests increases greatly, and MLB has had to postpone dozens of games due to positive tests. Similarly, the United Soccer League has seen positive tests cancel games. Garber said that the league is working with the MLSPA to ensure that the players adhere to league mandates, given the early issues with Nashville and FC Dallas, and with MLB.
“Our players knew in real time very early how important is is to follow medical protocols, and what could happen if you don’t,” Garber said. “What happens if you don’t is you test positive, and you go into isolation. And that is disruptive to your personal life, your family life and what you do for a living.”
As part of the protocol for a return to play, Garber noted that teams will charter to all away games (save short trips such as LA/LA), and will land in market the day of the game, and leave immediately after. Additionally, players and staff will be tested every other day and the day before the game. Even with a robust testing program, Garber conceded there will likely be positive tests.
“We’ve accepted the fact that we’re going to have challenges,” Garber said. “I think this is something that has become a new normal for all businesses. What we’re doing here is getting it started. We believe we have a good plan, we believe our players and staff are focused on adhering to our protocols. If it doesn’t work, we won’t move forward.”
As part of the return, Garber announced that in local markets where permissible, fans would be allowed to attend games. “There are a number of states in our country that are allowing limited of fans to sports events today,” Garber said. “Those clubs are interested in welcoming fans where their states allow, we will consider it.”
As of today, Garber said that no plans have been approved; however, FC Dallas has submitted a plan for their games. “I don’t anticipate that it is going to be a lot of markets in Phase 1, Garber said. “That process is going to continue [to evolve] as more and more states either decide to allow for sports events and some states that have decided to allow them might change their mind.”
- As part of the plan to return to play, Garber also announced that in states where fans attend games, MLS will resume playing the national anthem and where there are no fans present, the league will continue to abstain from playing it. Additionally, MLS will not prohibit players from kneeling should they so choose.
- MLS only announced schedules for the US-based teams. Garber indicated the league is working with Canadian officials for a plan for the Canadian teams to fully participate. However, Garber said that there is no consideration for not having those teams complete the season.
- Given the possibility of postponement or cancellation of games, Garber said it is possible the league moves to a points-per-game model for determination of the playoff places and seeds.