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What to consider about MLS’s restart plan

MLS announced its plan to play outside the bubble. Now they must take the necessary steps for it to work.

Columbus Crew SC v Minnesota United FC: Knockout Round - MLS Is Back Tournament Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

Major League Soccer announced its return to play plan on Saturday with an 18-game regular season to be played at home markets from mid-August to early-November. As of right now, Columbus Crew SC only has six games scheduled with the first one set to take place on Thursday, Aug. 20 in Columbus against the Chicago Fire. The remaining 12 games will be announced at a later date after phase one of the regular season restart finishes by early-September.

MLS will be just the second major American sports league to play games outside a bubble amidst the coronavirus pandemic. MLB is currently the only major league in North America playing in home markets. NFL and NCAA Football are expected to do the same later this month.

We know the bubble works. The MLS is Back Tournament was a success in regards to keeping players safe and preventing coronavirus spread. The only hiccup came early before the tournament started with different arrival dates from multiple teams, leading to a handful of infections and two teams (FC Dallas and Nashville SC) leaving Orlando and not playing in the tournament.

The MLS hopefully learned from its mistakes and will learn from the MLB’s mistakes and can execute a regular season, playoffs and MLS Cup outside a bubble in 2020. MLS announced multiple protocols to ensure safety and they look encouraging but they must be vigilant to keep player’s safe to avoid any kind of disaster.

Let’s break it down.

Fans

Of course, the biggest question in regards to all sports is when we will see fans in the stands again. MLS stated in the release that, “At this time, the majority of the matches will be played without fans in attendance.” As you would expect.

Commissioner Don Garber talked to multiple members of the press regarding the restart and the league is still trying to figure out a way that fans can attend games. The only way a team can allow limited fans to games will be if they submit a plan to the league that follows CDC and state guidelines and is approved to go ahead.

Garber stated that, “A number of states are allowing limited number of fans to sports today,” and that, “Other leagues are going to return to play in the fall with a plan for fans. And it’s not just the NFL.”

It’s interesting to see that MLS isn’t simply saying no to having fans but are entertaining the possibility of having people go to games. We saw the USL play with fans and it came with mixed results. Each state in the U.S. is in its own unique coronavirus situation and some states might have the ability to host fans in October. It would be difficult to expect fans at MLS games in August and for most of September. It’s all speculation at this point if fans are allowed to see games in the late fall.

If a team’s proposal is accepted and fans are allowed, it all comes down to personal responsibility. No team will host full capacity and any game with fans will be extra safe. Even still, would you go to an MLS game in 2020?

Team Travel

MLS’s travel plan is a brand new idea. “Teams will take chartered flights, or buses, and for the majority of road trips they will arrive in the host market on matchday and depart after the match later in the day,” according to the release.

This idea appears to be in regards to slowing the spread and it seems to be a response to MLB’s failure of travel. MLB teams are staying at hotels when traveling and we’ve seen players going out to eat or doing other outside activities and getting infected. MLS teams not being at hotels and literally getting to the stadium hours before kickoff and leaving hours after the final whistle will help.

The issues that can arise are visiting teams being well and truly ready for game time and possible delays. Take the Crew’s Aug. 24 trip to New York City FC as an example. If there are weather issues in Columbus and the Crew’s flight to New York can’t take off till 5 p.m., the team wouldn’t get to the game on time and it would get delayed. Not having the flight day buffer can make scheduling complicated. Teams would then use buses and who knows how that can effect the players with long drives. It takes 10 hours to get from Columbus to New York. It would be difficult to then play a full soccer game.

From a safety perspective, one-day flights and buses are a great idea. Other complications can arise from it unfortunately with the dependence of traveling on that day of the game and not having that singular travel day. Now it’s travel-game-travel day.

Health and Safety Protocols

Testing is taken care of at this point. MLS’s statement is, “All clubs are forming testing partnerships with a local certified lab, and all players, technical staff, and essential club staff will be tested every other day, including the day before each match day.”

The real challenge is going to come with what the MLS and MLSPA agree upon as the player protocol when players aren’t with their teams. Garber stated that the MLS and MLSPA are currently working on an agreement for rules regarding what players can and cannot do when they are on their own.

But what kind of things can you tell a person not to do when they are on their own? Any MLS player with a family still has to buy food for himself, their significant other and children and even with a mask on, someone could get infected in a grocery store. The only way you guarantee not getting the virus is to stay put in the same place for the long haul. We all know that’s an impossible and unrealistic expectation for these players.

Someone is bound to just get the virus despite being careful. It can happen and in most cases, it’s not their fault. These things happen. What is important is the players use better judgment when leaving their houses and if someone gets sick, the league steps in and says that player can’t train or play until tests are complete. MLB didn’t do that in the first week of its resumption.

Scheduling

The MLS has done something really smart in regards to scheduling. They have only scheduled the first six games for teams and won’t schedule the next 12 until mid-September. The state of the pandemic is unknown and so are these plans for return so staggering the release of the schedule will go a long way. Test the waters of this format, see where the pandemic status is for September and plan accordingly.

With conference-only scheduling in place, the MLS staggering the release also can help the league determine if future travel the rest of the year can expand beyond the current radius. Right now, the Crew is only going to travel to Cincinnati, New York and Chicago. If things improve by mid-September, maybe Columbus can go to Atlanta, Miami, or Nashville. If things don’t improve, the Black & Gold might just have to play FC Cincinnati five more times. As with everything, we will see.

Competitive Balance

Just like the MLB and NHL, MLS has expanded the playoff field. Eighteen teams will play in the MLS Cup playoffs starting Nov. 20. Only six teams will be axed in the regular season. With the possibility of postponements and cancellations of games due to multiple reasons, an expanded playoff field does help even that out.

Postponements and cancellations are bound to occur like they did for the MLB but MLS can’t just delay those games and have every team play the same number of games because winter is coming. Garber even mentioned using points per match as a factor in the standings with teams not having the same amount of games played.

At this point with expanded playoffs and standings mumbo-jumbo, it comes down to personal preference. While worse teams will be in the playoffs, I’m all for more games. The season will still count and an MLS Cup winner will be crowned but there will be a hint of doubt or even an asterisk next to this season with all the craziness this year brought. MLS isn’t the only league with that issue.

Canadian Teams Situation

This is the biggest issue we’ll see of the whole plan. As of right now, Canadian teams are only going to play each other. Toronto FC, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps will only play each other from Aug. 22 to Sept. 13. The reason being Canada’s current travel restrictions on the United States and the rule that anyone entering Canada must be quarantined for two weeks before moving around.

The hope is the travel restriction will be lifted by mid-September and MLS can have Canadian teams host U.S. teams and vice versa. All it is right now is hope and there has been no announcement yet of a backup plan. One possibility is Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver each go to a different MLS city in America and play games there for the remainder of 2020.


I am hopeful the MLS season will finish in 2020. We will no doubt see bumps in the road but the league seems to have some unique solutions to different issues we’ve seen arise in non-bubble playing environments. Limiting fans, one-day travel, staggered scheduled, safety rules for players, etc.

I hope it works but I am cautiously optimistic. The safety of every person is the most important thing and I think the league understands that. MLS is Back worked in the long-run. I think this can too so long as the league and teams and players take it seriously.