Major League Soccer had a tricky proposition in returning to play from the coronavirus pandemic. Unlike the NBA, NHL or many of the major European soccer leagues around the world, MLS was not nearing the end of its season when the stoppage of play began in mid-March. But different from the MLB, each team played two games pre-coronavirus, meaning the 2020 season was underway.
Given the missed time of more than three months, MLS had to figure out how to make up enough games to for the 2020 season to be worth resuming and find a way to recoup lost revenue.
MLS officially announced its solution last week in a World Cup-style format dubbed the “MLS is Back Tournament.” This competition will feature all 26 teams at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida beginning in early July and running for just over a month.
While different than resuming play in empty stadiums or jumping straight to the playoffs like other leagues around the world, this was a smart format those around the league were pleased with according to Columbus Crew SC president and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko.
“My reaction, not unlike a lot of the other presidents and CSOs and leaders of the teams, was one of excitement about the certainty around playing games,” he said on a conference call last week. “And I think that’s what this is about. When play stopped back mid-March, I think no one knew when we were going to be able to restart again. We were hopeful based on the surge that never came as strong as we thought in Ohio that we could possibly play games here. But we’re part of a wider league. And when it comes down to visiting teams coming in, you have to respect various quarantine rules within each state and each city.
“So what it very quickly became about was how can we for sure have games? How can we create certainty around providing our fans an experience around Major League Soccer this year?”
As discussions continued about how best to restart, the option to play at the Disney complex presented itself. While unorthodox and not completely ideal, this was ultimately the best option in order to get games going again as soon as possible.
The next step was figuring out how to house and keep players and staff from around the league safe. MLS had to work out the logistics, something that the players association had to agree with, which took some time but eventually rules were set in place to safely resume play.
“I think the concept at first was very exciting and fully supported from day one,” Bezbatchenko continued. “To actually get it kicked off and started, I think that it’s been a little bit more complicated, just because of the sheer complexity of this virus.”
For MLS clubs, a resumption of games was important. Players and coaches spent more than a month in preseason preparing for a new league year. Just as the 2020 season kicked off, it was stopped and those involved in the on-field work were left wondering when games would return.
Players spent the first month and a half of quarantine exercising on their own or working out on video chats with teammates. The Crew resumed individual, voluntary training in mid-May, followed by small group training at the end of the month. Finally, the Black & Gold were permitted to resume full team training last week.
This will all build toward the MLS is Back Tournament, one that, after all this time off, the Crew is excited to get going.
“Just the fact of playing soccer is important,” Bezbatchenko said. “But we have competitors, we have warriors, and they compete every day in training. They prepare their lives in a holistic way so that they can compete and win on Saturday. And so to have this tournament setup is fantastic, not just for the club and for the fans but at a personal level for the players because it’s what they do. It’s what they do for a living, it’s what they’ve done their entire lives.”
Added to the hunger of returning to play is that there is a lot on the line in the MLS is Back Tournament. The first carrot on a stick for the teams is that the three group stage game — where the Crew will face Atlanta United, FC Cincinnati and the New York Red Bulls — results will count toward the 2020 MLS standings. With a hopeful plan to return to league play following the tournament, these points, added to the four the Black & Gold earned in the opening two matches of the year, could certainly be important as teams push for a playoff spot in a shortened season.
“I obviously think those first three games are very important because we know that those points matter for the regular season,” Crew head coach Caleb Porter said last week. “When you look at those three games and the two games we’ve already played, those five games, the points that we gained over those five games are really going to give us momentum into the year when we return.”
The second incentive is that the winner will receive an automatic bid into the CONCACAF Champions League, the regional club tournament in this part of the world. The champion will also take home $1 million in prize money.
Any sort of return to play was always going to be difficult for MLS, given where the league was when games were stopped. But once the details were resolved and the format was announced, the Crew was excited to get back going and make its mark in 2020.
“We want to win this tournament. We’re going to get to go down and compete,” Bezbatchenko said.
“We’re competitors; the players want to win. There’s a significant prize award, over $1 million for the players and a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League that’s on the line. So, these are meaningful matches.”