MLS is Back Tournament brings World Cup-style format to America

MLS is Back Tournament

News — One league, six groups and a total of 26 teams. The 25th season of Major League Soccer wasn’t supposed to go this way, but the COVID-19 pandemic dismantling the world had other plans. MLS featured in two matches before the season came to a halt. Now, after months of waiting, plans are in place for the MLS is Back Tournament.

That’s the name and Orlando, Florida, is the location. Specifically, matches will be held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. The tournament will begin on July 8 and run until August 11.

The tournament will consist of MLS teams being put in six groups: three Western Conference groups, three Eastern Conference groups. All matches will count toward regular-season points, should the MLS resume a regular-season format.

The two top teams in each group will advance to the knockout rounds. In addition, four of the best third-place teams will advance to the knockout rounds. So, two clubs at the bottom of the third-place table will be out.

Don Garber, commissioner of MLS, answered questions from media today, via a Zoom call. He said that the health and safety of the players was the main priority.

“We put together a team of infectious disease doctors and consultants that work with us and our chief medical officers to ensure we have the right protocols in place to manage it within the environment of a neutral site, to begin sourcing testing, both testing for PCR and for serology, ensuring that we have the least impact on any tests that were going to be available for the general public,” Garber said in his opening remarks.

Garber: Matches will be televised with media partners

One of the first items on Garber’s checklist was to involve media. The matches will all be broadcast through three national partners. There will also be a feed for international viewers interested in the tournament.

As for journalists, Garber said that MLS is working on a plan for journalists and media to attend the tournament. There will be more information in the coming weeks. Garber also said he wants to integrate fan engagement into the broadcast in some way.

“We’ll be playing games before many other leagues will in this country, albeit not by as much as we had previously hoped, and very importantly, we wanted to continue the momentum that we have and continue our relationship with our fans who translate into viewers,” Garber said.

The National Women’s Soccer League announced their return to action this past month. The NWSL Challenge Cup will kick off on June 27, in just a few short weeks. More information on the Challenge Cup can be found here.

Garber did mention that he hoped the tournamnet would kick off in late June. However, the league had to work out a new CBA with the MLS Players Association, which resulted in a lot of back and forth. A deal was finally worked out on June 3.

“We had, frankly, had hoped to be able to start at the latter part of June, and we are just not able to do that,” Garber said. “So getting out early is important, and it’s not necessarily getting out first, because you’ve got to get it right. But getting out there and ensuring that we have the certainty to play games is crucial to the future success of the league.”

Garber: Player safety is of the utmost concern

Just like the NWSL, Garber expects that some MLS players might not participate in the tournament. Players might have hidden medical issues that they do not have to disclose to the media. Some are more open about it, like Jordan Morris of the Seattle Sounders, who has Type-1 Diabetes.

Recently, COVID-19 cases have spiked in Florida. Garber said that the league is keeping a close eye on cases in the host state, as well as states with MLS teams located in it.

“The players are going to be in close contact with each other, and that’s why they are going to be tested as frequently as they are, and any staff that is in close contact with them, the coaches that will be involved and etc.,” Garber said.

“We do need to manage social distancing,” he continued. “We will have that in place.”

Will MLS return back to “normal” this year? 

The tournament could take place of the MLS regular season if the COVID-19 pandemic worsens. However, it could also just be a one-off tournament, and the league could resume normal operations this year.

There is something at stake, though, in the MLS is Back Tournament. The winner will receive an automatic qualification to the Concacaf Champions League tournament.

Garber did say that he is “optimistic” about returning to stadiums this year.

“I expect that we will be back in our stadiums,” Garber said. “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.”

There is a slight adjustment with teams, too. Nashville SC, who began the season in the Western Conference, was moved to the Eastern Conference. This was to balance the conferences, said Garber.

“It certainly made sense for the tournament,” he said. “We needed to balance it out and the logical move was with Nashville… It’s too premature to talk about the permanency of it.”

On Thursday, Garber and MLS will hold a draw to determine which teams will be placed in what group. There will be three groups in each conference. The draw will take place at 3:30 p.m. EST, and will air on, MLS YouTube and club social media channels.

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