As MLS heads into the final stretch of its return-to-play tournament outside Orlando, the league is taking substantial steps toward resuming the regular season in home markets late this month.
Nashville SC and FC Dallas — which did not participate in the MLS is Back Tournament because of coronavirus outbreaks shortly after arriving at the Disney World bubble — would be the first to restart by facing one another twice, Aug. 12-15 in Texas, one person said.
By withdrawing from the tournament, both teams missed out on three matches apiece that counted toward the regular season. (The knockout stage does not count toward the regular season.) A third meeting, presumably in Nashville, would take place later.
As part of the first phase of playing in home markets, every team would have six matches between Aug. 21 and Sept. 13, two sources said. Additional matches are expected through the fall, culminating with the playoffs in November and MLS Cup in December.
Throughout the Florida tournament, MLS and the MLS Players Association have been in constant contact about continuing the season in home markets. Over the weekend, the MLSPA provided feedback about the league’s latest proposals.
Aside from the Dallas and Nashville issues, the MLS bubble has been a success: no confirmed cases for the past three weeks. The tournament semifinals are Wednesday (Philadelphia vs. Portland) and Thursday (Orlando vs. Minnesota), and the final is next Tuesday at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Kissimmee, Fla.
Playing outside a controlled environment, however, carries greater health risks, as Major League Baseball and soccer’s second and third divisions (USL Championship and League One) are learning. MLB has had to postpone several games, while the soccer leagues have called off some matches because of health concerns.
“Unfortunately,” one person close to the MLS situation said, “we can’t take 24 bubbles home” from the Disney setup, where two dozen teams have lived, practiced and competed since late June and early July.
MLS has stood by Commissioner Don Garber’s comments in June that the league plans to continue playing after the tournament. On Monday, league spokesman Dan Courtemanche said, “We do not have an update at this time, but we hope to have an update soon.”
Among the issues the league and the players’ association are discussing is testing: In the Florida bubble, results came back within 12 hours, but in home markets, timetables could vary. This would pose problems when needing to retest an individual or test the entire team on short notice after a positive result in the delegation.
Players are also seeking clarity on protocols, should a player test positive, and what levels of interaction they are allowed with family, friends and neighbors.
Transportation is also a topic: MLS teams typically fly commercial, but given the circumstances, charters would be required for all flights. With the flexibility of charters, teams could reduce the amount of nights necessary at hotels as well. In cases where flights are short, teams would arrive the morning of a match and depart the same day.
Because MLS is expected to gear the schedule toward conference play, shorter trips would allow some teams, particularly in the Northeast, to opt for private buses.
The league seems likely to allow spectators, provided the home team complies with local health guidelines. In the USL, some teams are allowed to fill a percentage of stadium capacity.
MLS must also find a long-term solution for its three Canadian teams, which are not allowed to play at home because of the risk posed by travel in and out of the country. (MLB’s Toronto Blue Jays will play home games in Buffalo.)
Toronto FC, the Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps are expected to play a series of matches against one another only. After that, they would have to move operations to the United States.
Since getting knocked out of the MLS tournament in the group stage, D.C. United has been training regularly at Audi Field.
“It’s like a third preseason,” Coach Ben Olsen said. The first was in January and February before the season started, and the second came in the weeks ahead of the Florida tournament.
Peruvian midfielder Edison Flores has been sidelined by a hamstring injury but should return to workouts this week, Olsen said. Flores is also mourning the death of his grandmother, who died over the weekend from covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. A Peruvian report said Flores’s father is also infected, but a United official said the organization could not confirm that.
The MLS transfer window opens Aug. 12, but with the international marketplace in flux and finances tight during this economic downturn, United does not appear on the cusp of any major moves.
“We’re focused right now on our players, what we’ve got and how we’re going to get better,” Olsen said. “We’ve got five points from five [regular season] games and there is going to be a lot more to play. We got a little better game to game in Florida, and we’re going to get a little better as the season goes on.”
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