“We hope our return to the field will allow fans a momentary release and a semblance of normalcy,” the MLS Players Association said in a written statement. “We are committed as a group to doing all that we can — both as leaders in our sport as well as leaders in our communities — to help carry our countries, our communities, our league and our sport forward.”
The league will announce tournament details soon, but plans call for each team to play three preliminary-round matches that will count toward the regular season standings.
Sixteen teams would advance to the knockout stage, which would not apply toward the regular season.
All matches are expected to appear on TV or streaming services.
Players and staff will reside in a “closed environment” for up to 35 days at a Disney resort. Everyone will be tested regularly, and there will be little or no interaction with the public.
All players are required to participate, Commissioner Don Garber said, but he added that preexisting conditions or family concerns could allow some to opt out.
MLS was two weeks into its season when play was suspended March 12 because of the health crisis. It remains unclear whether the regular season will resume late this summer or in the fall.
Should teams be allowed to play in home markets, Garber said, “We accept, for the most part, those games will be played without fans.”
MLS President Mark Abbott said the league schedule could go well beyond the current end date (MLS Cup on Nov. 7) and that some of the postseason probably would stretch into early 2021.
Although the sides agreed to a collective bargaining agreement early this year, the league sought concessions from the players to survive what Garber on Wednesday described as a $1 billion revenue hit caused by the shutdown and long-term implications of the economic downturn.
Without a lucrative TV contract, MLS relies heavily on game-day revenue and sponsors. “We don’t know what it’s going to look like going forward,” he said.
The tournament will provide some revenue, Garber said, but also keep the league in the public eye.
“The uncertainty as to when we can return … has forced us to come up with a plan that we could ensure at least allows us to get back in front of our fans,” he said of MLS, which is in its 25th season. “Unlike the other leagues, their fan bases are deeply matured; they’ve been around for generations. … Our absence from the sports scene was really crucial for us to get back.”
Negotiations were rocky at times, both sides said. MLS’s threat to lock out the players had they not agreed to a deal by midday Wednesday did not sit well with the rank and file.
“We felt we were very close to having a reasonable deal” over the weekend, Nashville SC defender Daniel Lovitz said, “and then we were put on a 24-second shot clock, for all intents and purposes.”
Garber said, “Clearly there were some challenging conversations that took place … to ensure we get to a point we are at today, which is to be able to move forward to begin play, to do it safely, to do it quickly, and then put ourselves in a position to finish the 2020 season.”
The players agreed to a 7.5 percent salary cut the rest of the year (5 percent annualized) and several other concessions, including reduced team and individual bonuses. Under the revised terms, the CBA will run an additional year, through the 2025 season.
The primary sticking point in recent days was the language in a force majeure clause, which would allow the league to withhold salaries and suspend contracts in the case of another national crisis. The clause was tied to attendance shortfalls. The league, multiple people said, backed down from that metric.
Another issue was TV revenue-sharing. The previous CBA called for the players to receive 25 percent starting in 2023, the first year of the next national broadcast contract. The owners wanted to slash it to 10 percent; the sides settled at 12.5 percent in 2023 only. It will return to 25 percent in 2024.
The MLS news comes days after the National Women’s Soccer League announced it will bring all nine teams to greater Salt Lake City for a month-long tournament starting June 27. It will be the first U.S. team sport to resume competition.
Soccer leagues around the world have begun returning from the shutdown. The German Bundesliga was the first major circuit to restart, and the English Premier League, Italian Serie A and Spanish La Liga are to follow in the coming weeks.
“It is an enormous expense [to the league], and it is a big challenge for our players,” Garber said of the Orlando plan. “I fully accept going away from home and competing in a tournament for a maximum of 35 days is not an easy ask. … These are things we decided to do out of necessity.”