Major League Soccer is the first of North America’s major men’s professional sports leagues to return, with a makeshift mini-tournament beginning on Wednesday night. Here are the hows, whys and wheres for the event, which is taking place in Florida, one of the country’s coronavirus hot spots. The caveat is that the league’s plans could easily change: In the last few days, a game has been postponed and a team has dropped out of the field.
The opener is a match between Orlando City S.C. and Inter Miami C.F. on Wednesday evening at 8 p.m. Eastern. Games will continue daily until the end of the group stage on July 23, and, to combat the summer heat, some will be played at the eye-opening hour of 9 a.m.
Each team in M.L.S. managed to play two games before the pandemic halted the season.
Atlanta, Kansas City, Minnesota and Colorado were 2-0 in the early action. Cincinnati, New York City F.C. and the two expansion teams, Nashville and David Beckham’s Inter Miami, had not earned a point.
The N.H.L. will head straight to the playoffs, the N.B.A. will briefly resume its regular season, and the N.W.S.L. is holding a short cup. M.L.S. plans to use a mix of these elements.
Initially, teams will play in a newly created event, the suitably named “M.L.S. Is Back Tournament.” Teams are divided into groups and will play three games each. The top two or three teams from each group, plus some of the best runners-up, will advance to the round of 16.
The group stage lasts until July 23, followed by a single-elimination playoff, with the final on Aug. 11.
M.L.S. has not announced a firm schedule, but the plan is to resume the regular season, preferably with teams back playing in their home stadiums. While there will be no fans at the Florida tournament games, the league hopes to begin reintroducing fans at some point this season.
All games in the M.L.S. Is Back event will be held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World. Players are staying in the Swan and Dolphin hotels there.
Players were tested for the virus before arriving, and testing, both exhaustive and expensive, will continue during the tournament. Players and staff on the bench for games must wear masks. Exchanging jerseys and kissing the ball will be forbidden. And “players, coaches and officials are asked to exercise care when spitting or clearing their nose,” the league’s protocols say.
There are several incentives for teams to do well in the new tournament. The three group stage games will count toward the regular season once it resumes. There will be prize money. And the winner of the tournament will earn a berth in next year’s Concacaf Champions League.
About a dozen M.L.S. players have tested positive for the Covid-19 virus so far. Unfortunately, 10 of them are on the same team, F.C. Dallas. Because of this, the league decided to remove Dallas from the tournament, although the team will presumably return when the regular season resumes.
On Tuesday afternoon, the second scheduled game of opening day, Nashville-Chicago, was postponed because five Nashville players had tested positive after arriving in Florida.
The vast majority are, but a few have opted out. Like the N.W.S.L., which will resume without Megan Rapinoe, M.L.S. will be down one of its marquee players: Carlos Vela of L.A.F.C., the reigning most valuable player. “It is in the best interest of the health of my family to stay home and be with my wife during what is a risky pregnancy,” he said in a statement.
At least a few other players and coaches have gone to Disney World but expressed trepidation.
Matt Lampson, a goalkeeper for the Columbus Crew who is a cancer survivor, tweeted last week: “For everyone in the ‘These are pro athletes. There is no risk. Nothing happens to them if they get the virus’ camp — I am high risk. And I know for a fact there are multiple others at #MLSisBack that are as well — including other players on their way here. This is serious.”
Brian Schmetzer, coach of the reigning champion Seattle Sounders, told a group of fans holding signs urging players not to go to Florida: “I understand it. It wouldn’t be my choice to leave, either. But we’re going to go play a game and do what Sounders do, which is win a soccer game.”
Commissioner Don Garber remained upbeat even after the news of F.C. Dallas’s withdrawal. “We have 550 players that have already been tested, and 13 of them have tested positive,” he told ESPN, before news of the further positive tests on Nashville’s squad. “Right now it’s an extremely low percentage. The players that are there are safe, they’re comfortable, they’re training, they’re eating, they’re recreating.”
He did also say, “We’re going to have to keep a close eye on it.”
M.L.S. will not play the national anthem before games. The stated reason is that there would be no point without fans, but the anthem has also become a flash point for controversy amid the Black Lives Matter protests. Many athletes have said they plan to kneel rather than stand for the anthem, and others, including President Trump, have criticized those plans.
Garber reiterated last month that “If a player is looking to express their right to kneel during the national anthem, they should have the right to do so.”
At least four M.L.S. teams applied to receive money from the Paycheck Protection Program, a federal loan program designed to help small businesses. The four teams, D.C. United, Inter Miami, Orlando and Seattle, asked for loans of between $1 million and $5 million.
The U.S.L. Championship, which includes a number of M.L.S. farm teams, is to begin play on Saturday, with games at home stadiums. The next lower division, League One, is to being a week later. League Two has been canceled this year.