The Union’s return to action became official on Wednesday, as Major League Soccer unveiled a 54-game tournament to be played over 33 days at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando, Fla. Teams will begin arriving at the site on June 24, followed by games from July 8 to Aug. 11.
Fashioned in a format similar to a World Cup, the event will divide the league’s 26 teams into six groups, with teams grouped with others from their conference. There will be one exception, Nashville SC, which moves from the Western Conference to the Eastern Conference for the tournament. The East, which includes the Union, will have two groups of four teams and one of six, and the West will have three groups of four.
The group draw will take place Thursday at 3:30 p.m., broadcast on the league’s website. Six teams will be “seeded” across the groups, starting with last year’s playoff semifinalists: Los Angeles FC, Atlanta United, Toronto FC, and the defending champion Seattle Sounders. Orlando City will be in the other Eastern group as the nominal host and will play in the tournament’s opening game. Real Salt Lake will be in the other Western group, having finished third in last year’s standings behind LAFC and Seattle.
Games in the group stage will count in the regular-season standings. Kickoff times will be 9 a.m., 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Eastern, to mitigate Central Florida’s summer heat. Every game will be nationally televised across ESPN, Fox, and Univision channels. (Expect ESPN to get the bulk of them, since Disney owns the network.)
Union manager Jim Curtin said he’s “intrigued” by the 9 a.m. kickoffs.
“I think they got it right in terms of maximizing player health and safety and getting the product to look good on the field,” he said. “It was never going to be exactly perfect, but I think they’ve found a really exciting idea.”
Fans won’t be allowed to attend, though commissioner Don Garber said there will be efforts to incorporate them into game broadcasts. There will also be ample attempts at technological innovation since the games won’t be in a traditional stadium, from camera angles to sound to virtual advertising.
Though the 9 a.m. kickoff time is unusual, it will help for reasons beyond the weather. It’s a significant slot for European and Asian broadcasters: 2 p.m. in London, 3 p.m. in most of Europe, and 10 p.m. in Tokyo and Seoul.
It could also put MLS games head-to-head with English Premier League broadcasts on NBCSN, a contest MLS would likely lose. But that will be made up for by MLS resuming games well before the NBA (July 31 at the Disney complex) and the NHL (sometime in August). And from the look of things, Major League Baseball won’t be back yet at that point, either.
The top two teams in each group and the four best third-place finishers will advance to single-elimination knockout rounds that start July 25. The round of 16 runs until July 28, the quarterfinals are July 30 and Aug. 1, and the semifinals are Aug. 5 and 6. Games tied at the end of regulation will go straight to penalty kicks to reduce the burden on players.
The tournament winner gets a Concacaf Champions League berth, through an agreement with Concacaf to change how MLS teams get into the 2021 field. This event’s winner will replace the team that wins the conference opposite the team with the best regular-season record. Players can also earn a piece of a $1.1 million cash pool.
Garber said MLS and the NBA have had "discussion on medical [matters] and communications and the like” as they plan to share the Disney venue, but there has not yet been discussion about either set of players attending the other’s games.
“If we’re able to manage it in a safe way, I think it would be awesome,” said Garber, whose league would obviously benefit from the buzz.
As for COVID-19 testing, everyone from teams traveling to Orlando will be tested twice before leaving, 24 hours apart, and get an antibody test. Anyone who tests positive will be barred from the tournament, and there will be contact tracing. People in contact with someone who tests positive will receive additional tests.
All travelers will be tested upon arrival in Orlando, and won’t be allowed to do any work until their test comes back negative. Everyone will be tested every other day for the first 14 days on-site, then regularly afterward including the day before a game.
Garber said the total number of people leaguewide who will go to the tournament will be “nearly 2,000."
If there is a positive test, that person will be isolated and undergoes contact tracing. The league said “close contacts will also be tested and they can continue to train or work as long as they wear a face mask at all times when not competing, remain asymptomatic and continue to test negative.”
Garber expressed confidence that the league’s attempt at a bubble will work. There will not be a set number of positive tests that stop the tournament.
“There is no specific protocol for how many positive tests would have us take a step back and think about what happens next,” Garber said. “It’s why we’re so focused on regular testing and ensuring we do what we need to do to keep our players safe. And then, managing what would happen should a player test positive.”
More details on the testing protocol are available on MLS’ website.
As for what happens after the tournament, the league plans to return to home markets for more regular-season games and the playoffs. How that will work hasn’t been settled yet, beyond the league knowing it will continue a stringent testing protocol.
“I do believe we’ll get back to our markets — I think all of our fans should expect that to happen,” Garber said. “When that will happen is still uncertain, and whether or not we’ll have any markets with fans is also uncertain. But we’re also hearing about different guidelines that have been established state-by-state where there’s a possibility that some fans might be able to attend games.”