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MLS restart tournament will run July 8 to Aug. 11 in Orlando

MLS Commissioner Don Garber speaks Feb. 26 in New York. The league will restart its season July 8 in Orlando, Fla.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber speaks Feb. 26 in New York. The league will restart its season July 8 with a tournament in Orlando, Fla.
(Richard Drew / Associated Press)

Major League Soccer will resume its season July 8 at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Fla., becoming the first major pro sports league in the U.S. to return since the COVID-19 pandemic caused play to be suspended in early March.

“I’m happy to be back with my teammates again, to once again feel the grass, my cleats, the feeling being able to kick a ball on a soccer field,” Galaxy captain Jonathan dos Santos said in Spanish. “It’s an important step for the players, for the club to return to competition.”

Because of the differing timelines for cities and states to reopen from the COVID-19 shutdown, which halted play after two games, commissioner Don Garber said the fastest and safest way for MLS to resume was to bring all 26 teams to one location.

“Getting out there and ensuring we have the certainty in playing games is crucial to the future success of the league,” said Garber, who estimated the league could take a $1-billion loss from the pandemic.

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“Without the concept of a tournament,” he continued in a conference call, “we would still be sitting here waiting like other leagues are.”

The teams will be divided into six groups for a World Cup-style tournament that will be played behind closed doors. A draw to determine the makeup of each group will be held Thursday.

The tournament will consist of 26 match days beginning with three games of pool play, the results of which will count in the MLS regular-season standings. The top 16 teams will advance to a single-elimination knockout stage and the tournament will end with a championship game on Aug. 11. Each team will play at least three times in Orlando; the two finalists will play seven games.

The winner will earn a spot in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League. All 54 matches will be televised live nationally on ESPN, Fox or Univision.

“It’s going to be interesting,” LAFC defender Jordan Harvey said of the format. “It’s going to be strange.”

Players and staff will be housed at Disney’s Swan and Dolphin resort for as long as seven weeks and will be subjected to rigorous COVID-19 testing before they leave their home market and again upon arrival in Orlando. Teams can begin arriving in Florida on June 24 and must be in place by July 1. Once there, players and staff will be tested as often as every other day. Anyone who displays positive symptoms will be isolated immediately.

The rigorous testing follows the model adopted by the German Bundesliga, which last week became the first soccer league to resume play during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“You can only go back to sports with physical contact if you really do tests at least twice a week,” said Fernando Carro, chief executive of German club Bayer Leverkusen. “It’s absolutely key to provide the capacity and the logistics in order to do the tests for all the players one day before the game.

“Given the diverse and strict rules of that concept, your medical staff and infrastructure needs to be capable of organizing and executing all of this on a very high and reliable level.”

Garber said there are no set number of positive tests that would lead the league to abandon the tournament. Players or staff members with pre-existing medical conditions or family issues can opt out of the tournament. Reigning league MVP Carlos Vela of LAFC, whose wife is expected to give birth to the couple’s second child in October, is among those who might choose that option.

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MLS actually would be the second U.S. pro league to play since the COVID-19 shutdown, following the National Women’s Soccer League, which will begin its season with a nine-team tournament in Utah on June 27.


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