MLS gird up loins to be back in action


MLS update June 2020 Image: MLS/ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex

As Major League Soccer (MLS) make preparations to make its return from the global COVID-19 pandemic, the league has announced recently the format of its World Cup-style tournament at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Orlando, Florida, in US, this summer.

MLS conducted the official live draw for the ‘MLS is Back Tournament’ on June 11 to determine the group stage matchups of the competition. Each club will play three group stage matches, all counting towards the 2020 MLS regular season standings, and the tournament winner will earn a spot in the 2021 Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League.

Major League Soccer (MLS) is a men’s professional soccer league sanctioned by the United States Soccer Federation which represents the sport’s highest level in the United States and Canada.

It will be akin to a FIFA World Cup™ format, the tournament will feature a continuous schedule of matches with group stage play featuring 16 consecutive days of action beginning on July 8 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, US. The top two teams from each group along with the four best third-place finishers will move on to the knockout stage.

The vast majority of the matches will be played in the evening. MLS Commissioner Don Garber said the timing of the games was to ensure that players do not take to the field in the sweltering heat in Orlando.

As the host club, Orlando City SC was placed in the top spot in Group A, which will be the six-team group. In addition, Inter Miami CF will join Orlando in Group A. As part of MLS’s decision to restart the season in the State of Florida, the inaugural match between Orlando City SC and Inter Miami CF will kick off the tournament on July 8.

The remaining top seeds in each group were determined by their performance in the 2019 season. In the Eastern Conference, 2019 MLS Cup finalist Toronto FC was drawn into Group C, while 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs semi-finalist Atlanta United was drawn into Group E. In the Western Conference, 2019 MLS Cup Champion Seattle Sounders FC was drawn into Group B, while 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs semi-finalist Los Angeles Football Club was drawn into Group F. Real Salt Lake, the team with the next highest points total in the Western Conference from the 2019 season, was drawn into Group D.

Following group stage play, the advancing clubs enter the knockout stage which will include a Round-of-16, quarter finals, semi finals, and the championship match will take place on August 11. Matches tied at the end of regulation in the knock-out phase will proceed directly to a penalty kick shootout.

MLS has been suspended since mid-March after just two rounds of action in the 2020 season amid the unprecedented health crisis caused due to coronavirus.

Fans will not be in attendance at the officially-named ‘MLS is Back Tournament’ which is scheduled to resume on July 8 and finish on August 11.

Strict health and safety protocols will be in place for the approximate 2,000 participants.

The 26 MLS teams will be drawn into six groups. The 14-team Eastern Conference will have three groups, one of six teams and two with four teams each.

The 12-team Western Conference will also be divided into three groups, each consisting of four teams. For the remainder of the 2020 season, Nashville SC will move to the Eastern Conference to provide competitive balance.

MLS is scheduled to be joined at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex by the National Basketball Association (NBA), which is planning to resume its 2019-20 seasons at the spacious facility on July 31.

Garber has said he expects the league to take $1bn revenue hit as the coronavirus bane has had a calamitous impact on the economy which has necessitated staging a summer tournament in a neutral single-site location.

“The first focus is to retain some of the revenue that we have planned for in our agreements with sponsors and broadcasters, and being able to have a tournament like this that has as many games as it will have, as many as three a day, will allow us to fulfill some of our obligations to our media partners and sponsors, both nationally and locally, and that’s important,” Garber maintained.

“Our clubs are reliant on game day revenue, and without fans and the normalcy of how we operate our business, it’s incredibly difficult. In addition, we have national revenue that has been really challenged without being able to deliver for our national partners. Similarly, our local teams have local sponsors that they sell that are receiving exposure in national broadcasts and other media, and this will allow us to fulfill a portion of that revenue,” he added.

All tournament games will be televised in the United States on domestic broadcast partners ESPN, Fox and Univision, while they will also be distributed on a world feed for international partners. A series of initiatives – which includes the deployment of virtual advertising – has been planned to enhance the broadcast experience.

“We’ll see new technologies being used from an audio perspective, from a camera perspective, with new angles, with new types of cameras being used.

All sorts of technological innovations that might be technologies that we’ll be able to utilize in the future,” Garber informed.

Once the ‘MLS is Back Tournament’ is through, the league plans to continue its regular season with a revised schedule in home markets, followed by the postseason.

MLS President Mark Abbott recently revealed that the league is aiming to finish the 2020 season in late December but added that playoff games could be staged in early 2021 if necessary.

“I’m very optimistic, and I expect that we will be back in our stadiums. We just don’t know the exact date. Obviously, this is all unfolding in real time,” stated a confident Garber.

Should one of MLS’s Canadian teams win the tournament, the country will be able to enter two teams into the Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League – the premier football club competition – for the first time.

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 ‘MLS is Back Tournament’.

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