Comeback Season: MLS is back, and ‘Caps are more than happy to take ‘opportunity’, despite concerns

The Major League of Soccer announced its return-to-play plan on Wednesday, paving the way for a tournament in Orlando next month, making the MLS the first major male sports league to return in North America. Here is a look at what we took away from that announcement, along with how it affects the Vancouver Whitecaps, who have started preparing for this tournament in earnest. 

After nearly 100 days since their last matchday, the MLS is getting set to return. 

In an announcement that dropped early on Wednesday, the league laid out their plan for a return set to commence on July 8th, 2020, giving a start date for a tournament that has been in the works for several weeks now. 

By officially setting out these important details for the tournament, the league has now implemented a timeline to follow in order to complete these games, giving fans and media a clearer look at what to expect from this return. 

With a tense few weeks of negotiations with the MLS players association leading into this announcement now behind them, the league can proceed with something that they’ve had in the works for a while, giving them a chance to put their league out on a market hungry for sports to consume.

“I wanted to really thank all of our players and the MLSPA and their leadership for working with us through what was a difficult negotiation,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said to reporters on a conference call Wednesday. 

So now, as a result, MLS games will be shown once again in 2020, which considering how stark things were looking a month or two ago, is a huge development, one that will certainly be positive for the league as a whole. 

But one big question looms: at what cost? 

That is certainly one thought pursing the minds of many after this announcement, with several key details yet to be answered, but at the very least, it’s given us a plan to return to football in North America, and now it’s just time to hash out those little details before we chart this as a success or a failure. 

Tournament Format

The tournament itself, which is currently unnamed, will involve all 26 of MLS’s teams, who will be split into 6 groups, split by conferences. With the decision to push Nashville from the Western Conference to the Eastern Conference for the rest of 2020, that will mean that the conferences will now be split unevenly, 14/12 in favour of the East. 

From there, the West will have 3 groups of 4 teams, while the East will have 2 groups of 4, and one group of 6, which will be group A, in which the hosts, Orlando, will reside as the top seed. Aside from that, the other top-seeded sides will be LAFC, the Seattle Sounders, Toronto FC and Atlanta United, the 4 semifinalists from the 2019 MLS Cup playoffs, along with Real Salt Lake, the highest-ranked losing quarterfinalist from that same playoff.

Within those groups, the top 2 teams in each of them will advance to the Round of 16, joined by 4 of the best third-placed teams, with all possible matchups seeded based on performances in the group stage.  

After that, it will be knockout games from there on in, World Cup style, in order to crown a champion. That’ll give all teams a minimum of 3 games, and a maximum of 7, based on how they perform down in Orlando. 

“We came up with this concept of a 54-match tournament, similar to the very successful (Men’s) World Cup here in 1994 where only 24 nations competed, and as you all know that was the last time there was only a 24-nation (global men’s) tournament,” Garber explained. 

To get games done as quickly as possible, this tournament will have matches nearly every day throughout its duration, with the plan being to play 3 games a day, one at 9:00 EST, the next at 20:00 EST and the last at 22:00 EST, with those staggered timeslots chosen in order to miss out on the brutal midday Orlando sun. 

All-in-all, it should be a gruelling process, one that should test teams who are certainly far from their typical match fitness, especially after a lengthy absence from competitive football. 

No anthems, and fully-backed protests

One other big tidbit that came out from the Commissioner’s media availability was his announcement that there would be no national anthems played during this tournament, and that if they were to play, he’d fully back every’s players right to protest during their singing. 

In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has come to a head in light of the brutal murder of George Floyd by police in Minnesota, there have been several protests all over the globe in support of the Black Lives Movement, in hope that this can finally be the push towards longstanding change in society. 

“I also want to take a moment to recognize what has been overshadowing this entire return-to-play plan,” Garber said during his opening statement on Wednesday. “Which has been all of us managing through and recognizing and confronting the issues that have arisen out of the death of George Floyd and bringing to light all of the racial injustice, the inequality, the violence against black men and women that have existed in our country for way too long. As I stated during the last call that we had, it’s not just enough to post social media posts and it’s not just enough to have ad campaigns.”

“We now need to begin the really important task of, for us, bringing together the entire MLS community, our clubs, our owners, our players, our partners, to address these issues and to try to create programs that can lead to meaningful change.”

He added: “It starts with dialogue and that dialogue has begun, but now it has to turn into a real commitment to action, including our league and our clubs supporting financially those organizations that can make a difference to address these systemic issues in our world, and clearly, to take our lead in trying to address these issues that exist in the sport of soccer, both on the field and off the field, in our offices, within the youth and amateur movement, I think we have a real ability to take a leadership in creating programs that can address these challenges and problems and inequalities that exist in our sport. 

A few years back, Colin Kaepernick made waves with his peaceful protests of the National Anthem, which were made to demonstrate his frustration with racial injustice in America, prompting several athletes to join him by doing the same in their various leagues. 

As a result, the MLS already had put out a statement supporting their players’ right to do so back in 2017, so when asked about the league’s recent statement re-iterating that support, Garber pushed his support towards that issue. 

“It was just a restating, literally, of what we announced in 2017 when this issue really came to light throughout the pro sports world,” Garber said. “And we were asked by a reporter what’s our position, and then we just reissued what we said several years ago. 

In light of the precarious position that North America finds itself in, it’s comforting to see the MLS stand on the right side of history, and push towards long-standing change that is overdue. 

With how diverse the game is both in this league and across the world, they’ve experienced the positive impact diversity can have on their league, and know very well that pushing towards a society that is more just to everyone is in all of our best interests.

Motivation to participate

In Beom Hwang looks on during the ‘Caps clash with SKC earlier this season (Keveren Guillou)

In order to push teams to compete at their highest level, the league has also added some incentives to teams that perform well in this tournament, which could certainly add some drama to a competition that certainly will not lack for it already.

To help encourage strong group stage play, all of the games in the round-robin will count towards the 2020 MLS season, which is expected to resume after the tournament (more on that later). 

On top of the 2 games that each team has already played, that will give them 5 games to build off of when and if the season does resume, reducing the number of games that each team will have to play in order to complete the season on time ahead of 2021. 

The schedule is already expected to be compressed, so this won’t aid the possibility of a 34 game season, but this could very well fast track a 20 game season, likely composed of just inter-conference play, before seeing the playoffs begin as normal later in the fall. 

On top of that incentive for group stage play, there will also be a lot at stake for a potential winner, besides the obvious glory of lifting a trophy as the “Return to Play” champion. Commissioner Don Garber announced that on top of earning that distinction as champion, the winner would also bring home a prize pot of 1.1 million dollars, as well as earn qualification to the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League, regardless if they’re Canadian or American. 

For the Whitecaps, the latter news is huge, as the CCL is a competition that they’re very eager to return to, and under the usual format, the only way to do so was through the Canadian Championship. While that avenue will still remain available to them, provided that the Canadian Championship completes on time, having this extra chance to participate in continental competition will be an opportunity they surely won’t take lightly, making it a huge incentive for them to do well. 

“I think that’s the biggest incentive for us for the future,” ‘Caps head coach Marc Dos Santos said Wednesday. “Not knowing what will be next, it’s important that we speak about it, anyone that would say that after the Orlando tournament we’re going to do this, and we’re going to start playing in our market, it’s all such a question mark, so our focus as a club will be one that we have to do in Orlando is taking this tournament as an opportunity, and our motivation should be to say: ‘Hey, let’s grab that Champions League Spot’, not knowing what tomorrow brings.”

But while there is a lot of incentive to grab the Champions League spot from a Canadian perspective, as the 3 Canadian MLS sides are typically not allowed to qualify for the tournament through any MLS-based method, it won’t be the end of the world if they don’t grab it in Orlando, as some good news came out later in the day during ‘Caps conference call. 

When asked by BTSVancity if the club had any discussions with the Canadian Soccer Association about a potential return of the Canadian Championship, Whitecaps Sporting Director Axel Schuster had some surprisingly positive news on that front.

“The CSA is trying, and looking to play the full cup, and to play it in the original format,” Schuster said. “And (to do that), we don’t have a big number of games, we still have time, so the CSA, MLS and USSoccer are all working together, and there is also FIFA  who are involved in that, and CONCACAF, because of National Team windows, none of that is fixed, so it’s impossible to fix (a Voyageurs Cup schedule) today, because we were in exchange with CONCACAF, to give an example, about what the international calendar could look like, and when National Teams could be able to resume their competition, as they also have some games that have to be played, for the upcoming competitions.”

“So they are looking at that, and as soon as we have a new calendar, a new schedule with all of those dates locked, then we can work around that, and fix all of the dates (for a cup), but it looks good, if things keep going as they do.”

Return to regular-season action

But while this announcement of the tournament was far from surprising, what was a shock is the news that the league is expecting to return as normal after the completion of this venture, something that many previously thought to be close to impossible. 

While no announcement has been made as it pertains to how they exactly plan to do that, the fact that they’re even considering returning would mean that they’ve formulated some sort of process to undergo in order to even think about tabling that idea, so it’ll be interesting to see what they come up with, in that regard. 

“I’m very optimistic,” Commissioner Garber said when asked about a potential return. “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, and literally, more and more markets are opening, and what I find interesting is they are the markets you expect to open up later and on a curve or a timetable.”

“I do believe we’ll get back to our markets. 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 are 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.”

So despite Garber’s optimism, this talk of a return is for now just that, talk, but at the very least, plans are being put in place to at least be ready to do something. Much as was the case with this tournament, a plan doesn’t get made in one day, but the intention is there, which is the first step towards concrete action. 

As some within the Whitecaps said, it’s just too early to tell, but from what they’ve seen, they’ve so far liked the propositions, it’s just about finding the right one and going with it. 

“We are in exchange about all of the scenarios after the tournament,” Schuster said. “But as you can guess, it’ll be two months from now that we will come back from the tournament, so as with the tournament, the league is working on that (a long-term return), but there is adjusting, and re-adjusting, and looking for the very best solution, and it will take time to finally come out with a plan.” 

“Right now, the league is looking for the very best solution to play most of the games, but that depends on how things develop in the right direction, and it goes along with that. What kind of sense would it make to come out today with a plan and in one month it looks totally different. I saw a lot of plans, and they look really good, and are (set up) in a way that we can play a lot of games in the season, but again, it’s too early.”

Technicalities of a return aside, however, it does make sense that they will want to return in an abridged format, as they will have those 5 games of play to work with, along with a couple of spots in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League still to hand out, but as stated by Garber and Schuster, how they exactly plan on returning will be the big story to monitor. 

From a pure footballing perspective, it’s a positive sign, one that many fans are surely happy to see, but from a health perspective, there are lots of queries that are yet to be answered. 

No doubt, it’s way too early to tell what can happen in a few months, but based on how things are trending, there are a lot more questions than there are answers, and even despite Garber’s media availability on Wednesday, the league doesn’t seem able to answer all of them quite yet.

Concerns

Whitecaps winger Cristian Dajome gets up close and personal with SKC’s Khiry Shelton in February (Keveren Guillou)

While this plan has been worked on extensively for the past month or so, there are still some lingering concerns that have stuck out so far. 

One big one that emerged was a lack of clear protocol as it pertains to ensuring that everyone in contact with the players remains tested and safe, as some workers on the edge of this Orlando bubble won’t have access to testing, which is a big risk. 

And when pressed on what MLS would do if any player or staff tests were to come up positive, Garber said that the league has “no specific protocol”, which is certainly never an ideal answer to encounter, especially on such an important matter.

Considering that any sick players within the bubble would completely complicate the tournament process, especially given the close proximity that they will be operating with, not having a clear protocol is a big surprise, and can certainly be described as a red flag. 

Another big question mark surrounding the tournament will be the classification of auxiliary staff who will work the tournament, mainly people such as hotel cleaners and bus drivers, who don’t necessarily come in direct contact with the players, but will still be in close proximity throughout the tournament. 

For both the sake of players and the staff, would it not be beneficial to test them regularly to ensure that transmission is not being spread from in the bubble to out and vice versa?

According to Garber, that is something that they’ve considered, but from what they’ve seen, they’ve determined the risk to be minimal. 

“I think the key point there is those staff people will not be coming in close contact with our players,” Garber said. “And if they were going to be in close contact, then we would manage it through a different protocol. So we are all going to be living in a world where we are going to be able to test every person that comes in contact with each other or comes in contact with us as we go on with our lives.”

So considering all of that, along with the proposition to return to league play after the completion of the tournament, it’ll be very interesting to see how they draft protocol for those games, as travel between cities will be required. 

If there is no protocol in place for players who test positive within a bubble set-up, along with limited testing for fringe staff, then what will the plan be for a return that involves 26 cities and extensive travel? With the huge discrepancy in cases between some cities, as well, will players be as willing to participate in a normal league set-up, knowing that they could be very well putting the health of their loved ones and other city residents at stake?

We don’t have a crystal ball, so we don’t know how good or bad the COVID-19 situation is going to be in North America in August and beyond, but there are certainly going to be a lot of questions to answers before we start dreaming of a league format. 

While it’s certainly likely that the MLS will inspire themselves from the successful return-to-play plans of leagues such as the Bundesliga in Germany and Liga NOS in Portugal, it is important noting that the smaller size of those nations in terms of pure mass, along with case numbers that are more consistent from region-to-region, both things that North America do not have the advantage of having, made that possible.

Medical concerns aside, however, it’ll also see how the players cope with a congested return, especially considering the lack of games that they will have played in the past 7 months or so. 

In Europe, most leagues were interrupted towards the mid-to-end of their season, so the two-month break wasn’t as devastating, at least compared to what we may see from some teams in the MLS, such as the ‘Caps, who have only played 3 competitive games in the past 9 months, putting them at high risk for injuries.

So with that in mind, it’ll also be curious to see how that affects A) a teams approach to the games (squad rotation, substitutions), as well as B) the competitive level of this tournament, as rust will certainly be a factor for about 90% of the teams involved. 

Looking Forward

But concerns aside, there are some benefits to these tournaments, besides the obvious joy that having the MLS back will bring many North American football fans.

The league will gain a lot of exposure from these games, which could have an impact on the long-term health of the league, both within and outside the continent. Along with the financial burden that teams are easing by playing these games, this could overall strengthen the health of the league. 

As long as the health concerns of the players and staff are well-managed, this could prove to be a risk worth taking, helping push the MLS forward towards a new era. 

At the same time, it’s exactly that, a calculated risk, and with everything that’s going on, it’s going to be interested to see how this gamble pays off. 

It’s way too early to tell, but from the get-go, there’s certainly pros and cons to weigh, and as we move on, we’ll see towards which side the scale tips.

For now, however, we’ll tip our hats to the return of the MLS, and keep a close eye as the days creep towards July 8th, and keep our fingers crossed that everything goes right. 

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