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What we know about MLS’s return to play, potential lockout

It looked as if we were so close to getting MLS back.

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New York City FC v Columbus Crew SC Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

It has been an interesting week around Major League Soccer, and that’s without any games played.

The pause in MLS play due to the coronavirus pandemic reached into a fourth month on Monday after the league initially stopped action in mid-March, following two weeks of games. It appeared MLS was headed for some form of return to play later this month, but now a potential lockout looms over the league.

What’s going on in MLS and what should fans expect from the top American soccer league this summer? Let’s take a look at what we know. We’ll start with the positives.

As originally reported by The Athletic, MLS planned a summer tournament in Orlando, Florida that would allow games to begin before they can take place in teams’ home stadiums. All 26 MLS teams would travel to ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando for the tournament, which would take place in a similar format to the World Cup with group games counting toward the MLS standings, followed by a single-elimination knockout round.

Massive Report was told by a source with information about the return to play that “the tournament in Orlando was likely to happen.”

According to The Athletic, the tournament will feature four groups. As the designated “host” of the tournament, Orlando City will get the top spot in Group A. The 2019 MLS Cup playoff semifinalists, Atlanta United, Los Angeles Football Club, Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC would be the top teams in the other groups with one team seeded second in Group A behind Orlando. Similar to the World Cup, the teams that finish first or second in their group will advance to the knockout stages, consisting of quarterfinals, semifinals and the final.

Teams will be able to take between 45 and 47 people to Orlando. Each club can bring no more than 30 players, which must include three goalkeepers, one team administrator, two athletic trainers, one equipment manager, one public relations officer and one content producer. Upon arrival in Orlando, all traveling members of clubs will quarantine for seven consecutive days, which will feature a number of restrictions on workouts, screenings, temperature checks and more.

All members of a team’s traveling party will undergo coronavirus testing prior to leaving the home market for Orlando. These would include two polymerase chain reaction tests and a serology, or antibody test. Players and staff will be subject to coronavirus testing on the day before their first match. A player or staff member who tests positive will be isolated and not made available for the game.

The games themselves would take place under normal MLS rules with a few exceptions. As recommended by the International Football Association Board, teams will be permitted five substitutes, up from the normal three, and will have only three opportunities to make changes, not including halftime. According to The Athletic, games would tentatively kick off at 9 a.m., 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. ET to avoid unsafe weather conditions in the Orlando summer. The matches would include mandatory cooling breaks and drink breaks when needed.

Due to the increased substitutes, teams will be permitted a 23-man game day roster, up from the normal 18. This allows for 12 substitute options on the bench.

On Sunday, the MLS Players’ Association put out a statement, which included its decision to participate in the summer tournament in Orlando. Also in the statement were details on the latest counteroffer to MLS as it relates to economic concessions for the 2020 season and modifications to the collective bargaining agreement, which was agreed upon in February but never ratified.

“Included were salary reductions across the entire player pool, reduced team and individual bonuses and additional concessions to existing and future terms of the CBA,” the statement from the MLSPA read.

ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle reported Monday morning, however, that MLS “has already pushed back, insisting that it has submitted its best offer and that it won’t budge further.” ESPN’s Herculez Gomez, a former MLS player, also reported that the league is giving players until 12 p.m. ET on Tuesday to accept its terms or MLS will lock the players out.

Reports from across the league on Monday were that players would not show up for voluntary training and Massive Report was told Columbus Crew SC players did not arrive to the Obetz facility as they had since MLS permitted individual training.

According to Carlisle, sticking points include pay cuts (MLS offered 8.75 percent but the MLSPA offered 7.5 percent), the ability to back out of the CBA in the case of another catastrophic event such as the coronavirus pandemic (MLS wants the right to invoke a force majeure clause if five teams suffer an attendance drop of 25 percent or more from the previous year but the MLSPA did not include that stipulation) and the proposed revenue sharing plan that was part of the CBA agreement in February and was expected to begin with the new television broadcast deal in 2023 (MLS would like to delay that starting by a year or decrease the percentage from 25 percent to 10 percent in 2023).

While it seemed, as recently as late last week, that MLS would be back in this tournament form later this month, the disagreement between MLS and the MLSPA could now delay a return to play further if terms are not agreed upon by Tuesday at noon.