Major League Soccer is about to resume its season — in a state that has seen a huge spike in coronavirus infections, with one team absent because of a COVID-19 outbreak, and with plenty of worry about what will happen next.
The MLS is Back tournament starts Wednesday in Florida. The league’s teams are sequestered in resorts for the duration of the World Cup-style tournament, which will be played without fans at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex at Walt Disney World.
FC Dallas withdrew from the tournament on Monday after 10 players and a coach tested positive for the virus. On Tuesday, Nashville SC's status was thrown into doubt with five confirmed positive tests.
“It's a strange time, because on one hand you're focused to get ready for this tournament, and get pumped up and get excited about it because the the tournament sounds a lot of fun, World Cup-style,” Real Salt Lake veteran Kyle Beckerman said. “But then on the other hand you're thinking, ‘Is this even going to happen?’ So there's mixed emotions going on.”
The tournament kicks off with a match between Orlando City and expansion Inter Miami, a nod to the host state. Nashville was supposed to play Chicago in the second game on Wednesday night, but it has been postponed.
Additionally, Toronto FC's opening game against D.C. United was moved from Friday evening to Sunday morning. Toronto was supposed to depart on Friday, but additional testing meant the Reds didn't arrive until Monday.
MLS shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic on March 12, after the league’s teams had each played two regular-season games.
Commissioner Don Garber said that despite the disappointment about Dallas, the case shows that the league's extensive testing in its so-called bubble is working.
“We knew when we created this tournament that we would experience some impact of some of the coronavirus,” Garber told The Associated Press. “We’re all learning to live with COVID-19 and to adapt to the pandemic and to ensure that we’re taking care of each other and taking care of ourselves and following the health and safety protocols as closely as possible. We also knew that when we launched this tournament, there would be an element of risk.”
Also troubling are the rising cases in Florida. On Tuesday, the state reported 7,347 new infections and 380 new hospitalizations.
Portland Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese said it's important to be vigilant.
“I think MLS has worked very hard to try to create a safe environment," Savarese said. "But nevertheless, we still have to continue to make sure that we take always as a priority the health of the players, and making sure that they're safe.”
While there are legitimate concerns, most of the teams are looking forward to getting back on the field and the feeling of a bit of normalcy.
“We are proud of Major League Soccer, and we want to show our game to the world,” Orlando City coach Oscar Pareja said. “We're committed to that.”
LAFC captain and reigning league MVP Carlos Vela opted out of the tournament, choosing to remain home with his pregnant wife and their young son.
Vancouver's Fredy Montero and Lucas Cavallini also decided not to go for personal reasons. Cavallini revealed that two family members had died because of COVID-19.
“I would love to be out on the field with my teammates fighting with everything I have to play for this club and community in Orlando. Unfortunately COVID-19 has had a very big impact, taking away two beloved members of my family. I feel that it is best that I remain home to support my loved ones at this challenging time,” he said in a statement.
The Whitecaps' Andy Rose also decided not to go because his wife is expecting a baby. Real SL defender Nedum Onuoha opted out because of the time apart from his family.
KEY INJURIES, OTHER ABSENCES
Minnesota's Ike Opara is undergoing treatment for an undisclosed condition and likely won't join the team until the knockout rounds. LA Galaxy's Jonathan dos Santos will miss the tournament because of hernia surgery. Inter Miami rookie Robbie Robinson left the bubble for what were described as personal reasons and won't be allowed to return.
Dallas coach Luchi Gonzalez spoke to reporters on Tuesday, a day after the team withdrew from the event. He said players felt hurt and hopeless in the moment — but they also knew there was going to be risk.
“I don’t think there was going to be a right or wrong moment (for the tournament). I think it needed to happen and there’s no regrets,” Gonzalez said. “I’m not sorry I’m having this experience with these players, because I know it’s a good learning lesson for the league, for the game and for all the other teams.”
Because of the heat and humidity in the Orlando area during the summer, some games will be played at 9 a.m. That means routines will have to be adjusted, like big pregame meals.
“Never have I ever coached a 9 a.m. real game, so that will be an experience,” Sporting KC coach Peter Vermes said. “At the same time, I think that we're going to obviously readjust the way we do things. Maybe wake up a little bit earlier, try to fuel the body a little bit differently, probably the night before and earlier that day."
The 25 teams (following Dallas' withdrawal) are divided into six groups for the preliminary round. Each team will play three group-stage games over 16 consecutive days. The results in the group stage will count toward the regular season. The winner of the final match on Aug. 11 will get a place in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League. The teams are playing for a $1.1 million prize pool.
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