Major League Soccer confirmed Saturday that the Union will play the first game of their resumed regular season on Aug. 21 at the New England Revolution. They will play their first home game of the restart on Aug. 25 against the New York Red Bulls. The latter game will be the Union’s first home contest of the year after two road games in March before the coronavirus pandemic began.
Those games plus four others were unveiled as the league confirmed six rounds of games through mid-September.
MLS is plowing ahead despite continued outbreaks of COVID-19 in Major League Baseball and the USL, both of which are playing outside bubbles, as recently as Friday. The Union’s USL team announced a positive test Friday evening, and postponed Sunday’s home game against Hartford Athletic. The Los Angeles Galaxy’s USL team has had 11 players test positive in recent days, and postponed three games. Baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals canceled a weekend series against the Chicago Cubs after announcing three positive tests.
MLS seems to believe it can keep the virus at bay. Its tournament in a bubble at Disney World has been a success, but the rest of the year will not be in a bubble. Teams will only play conference opponents, travel by bus or charter plane, and often do all travel on game day to stay out of hotels.
Asked whether the league should quit while it’s ahead, commissioner Don Garber gave a strong response.
“Quitting is never an option,” he said. “I never believed, and I know our owners and staffs never believed, in quitting when we’re ahead, and we’ve not been ahead a whole lot. … We’ve accepted the fact that we’re going to have challenges.”
Fans have told the league loudly on social media that they disagree with resuming games, but TV broadcast money is louder. So is the potential for ticket revenue from spectators in stadiums, which MLS will allow where authorities do.
The Union will not have fans in the stands at their games. A statement from the team said it is “continuing to evaluate the ability to have fans at future home matches in accordance with state and local guidelines and look[s] forward to when fans can be welcomed back to Subaru Park safely.”
There are other caveats, too. Teams will only play against conference opponents, and the league’s three Canadian teams don’t have games at all yet. While it’s expected that the Canadian teams will play each other, they will not cross the border because Canada’s government would force them to quarantine for 14 days upon returning home.
The first games league wide in the resumed campaign will be FC Dallas hosting Nashville SC on Aug. 12 and 16. Those are the two teams that didn’t play in the MLS tournament due to coronavirus outbreaks within their squads, so they were denied the three group-stage games that counted in the regular-season standings.
Dallas, Real Salt Lake, and Sporting Kansas City said they plan to allow fans at their games, with low capacities, masks required, and other rules. FC Cincinnati said it won’t allow fans at its first home game but might allow them at the next two.
Garber said the league has not yet approved any plans to allow fans but will approve them if they follow state, local and Centers for Disease Control guidelines.
“There are teams and leagues, as you know, that are allowing fans, so we believe that it is smart for us to consider it,” he said. “We’re not looking at this from a political perspective. We’ve got to make a decision that is the right decision for our clubs and for the league.”
Asked why MLS isn’t following baseball’s banning fans across the board, Garber said, “Playing matches with fans in local markets is a step toward some sense of what the new normal in sports is going to be, and we have to start … We believe it makes sense for us to give it a try.”
MLS said it is working with its medical advisors and advisors for the MLS Players Association on a virus testing plan. Teams will partner with local labs, and all players and essential team staff — not just coaches — will be tested every other day.
“We believe our players and our staff are focused on adhering to our protocols, and if we’re able to do that we ought to be able to get our games in,” Garber said. “If we can’t do that in a way that’s safe, and one that’s ensuring the health of our players, then we’ll have to address it. And if it doesn’t work, then we won’t move forward after that [six-game] period of time.”
Asked whether there’s a specific threshold for a number of virus cases that would stop games, Garber said that, as with the summer tournament, there is not.
“We will have to make that decision when that situation presents itself to us,” he said. “Clearly, if we have one or two players that test positive, we believe we can isolate those players and manage it. But when you start getting into multiple players and the sense that the virus is spreading or [has] spread, then we would have to postpone that match and manage it accordingly.”
The Union will resume the regular season in fourth place in the Eastern Conference with a 2-1-2 record and 8 points in the standings. Both wins and one of the ties came in the tournament; the loss and the other tie came in March before the coronavirus pandemic began.
The regular season is set to end on Nov. 8. The playoffs are set to begin on Nov. 20, and the final is set for Dec. 12. The league said it plans to announce the rest of the regular season schedule by early September. A total of 18 teams will make the playoffs.
“We’re going to have a season that’s going to have a lot of competitive balance issues,” Garber said, referring to the shortened campaign and the geographical restrictions. He added that if games are canceled due to virus outbreaks, standings could be set by points per game instead of total points.
But there will, Garber insisted, be a season no matter the risks for now. When asked whether he thinks his league can succeed where others have failed, he said, “I don’t know that anybody can answer that question. … The alternative is to make the decision to not go forward, and operate out of fear as opposed to operating out of strength, and out of confidence.”
Friday, Aug. 21: at New England Revolution, 8 p.m. (PHL17)
Tuesday, Aug. 25: vs. New York Red Bulls 7:30 p.m. (PHL17)
Saturday, Aug. 29: vs. D.C. United, 7:30 p.m. (PHL17)
Wednesday, Sept. 2: at Columbus Crew, 7:30 p.m. (PHL17)
Sunday, Sept. 6: at New York Red Bulls, 7 p.m. (PHL17)