MLS to return next month with World Cup-style tournament

Major League Soccer officially announced Wednesday its plan for returning to play, as all 26 teams are set to compete in the “MLS is Back Tournament” beginning July 8 in Orlando.

The league suspended the season March 12 after teams played just two games because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and three months later, they are now confident they have found a safe way to return with a World Cup-style tournament at the Disney Wide World of Sports Complex.

A total of 54 matches will be played between July 8 and the championship on Aug. 11 in a controlled environment where no fans will be in attendance and teams will stay together at the otherwise closed Swan & Dolphin Hotel.

“We’ve worked the last couple months to put together a plan, one that would ensure the health and safety of our players and one that would deliver exciting content on the field for our fans, for our partners and ultimately get our sport, get our league back doing what we do, which is to play soccer,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said on a Zoom news conference Wednesday.

The tournament draw will take place at 3:30 p.m. Thursday on, and clubs will begin arriving in Orlando as early as June 24 or no later than seven days before a team’s first match. An FC Cincinnati spokesperson indicated the team is still finalizing its plans.

Teams will be guaranteed three group-stage matches in which results will count in the MLS regular-season standings, and the winner of the tournament will earn a spot in the 2021 Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League. A continuous schedule of matches at 9 a.m., 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. will be played nearly every day for 16 days during the group stage of the tournament, and all matches will broadcast with the league’s national partners on ESPN, Univision and FOX Sports.

The top two teams from each group, along with the four best third-place finishers, will move on to the knockout stage, which will begin July 25 and include a Round-of-16, Quarterfinals, Semifinals and the Championship match. Players will have the opportunity to earn additional bonuses as part of a $1.1 million prize pool.

“At the end of the day, I think all of us are very excited for us to be on the field again, not being in individual trainings or in groups of five or six but to actually have some contact and some competitiveness within being on the field again, and I think that Orlando definitely provides that,” FC Cincinnati defender Greg Garza said in a Zoom call with local media. “It’s obviously a huge sacrifice for us to make to be away from families and loved ones for such a long time, but at the same time we get to go down there and do what we love the most and at the end of the day we get paid for doing what we love the most.”

The MLS medical department and the league’s infectious disease experts have developed a comprehensive COVID-19 testing plan which will be implemented for the entire tournament, and staff members as well as hotel employees will be wearing masks and other personal protective equipment and undergoing temperature checks.

The state of Florida reported its largest rise in COVID-19 cases over the last week, but Garber isn’t concerned because players won’t be coming in contact with the general public. FC Cincinnati goalkeeper Spencer Richey said players are confident in the protocols and understand the “risk-reward.”

According to Garber, there is no specific protocol for how many positive tests would cause the league to halt the tournament.

“It’s why we’re so focused on regular testing to ensure we do what we need to do to keep our players safe and then managing what would happen to a player that tests positive,” Garber said. “The player that tests positive, we are obviously going to remove from the tournament. They go into quarantine. There’s contact tracing for those that have been in any contact within 10 feet of that person. Those people are tested, or even more regularly than had they not been in contact with a positive test.”

Garber said he is optimistic teams will return to their home markets as the league plans to continue the regular season with a revised schedule, which he expects won’t be released for at least another month.

“I do believe we’ll get back to our markets,” he said. “I think all of our fans should expect that to happen. When that will happen is still uncertain, and whether or not we’ll have any markets with fans is also uncertain, but we’re, we’re also hearing about different guidelines that have been established state by state where there’s even a possibility that some fans might be able to attend games.”

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