Major League Soccer is still hopeful of seeing some kind of on-field action this season. Just don’t expect it to be with any fans in attendance or any time soon.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber told TSN’s Kristian Jack that “an enormous amount of work” had been getting done, both at the league level and at club level with the owners and operating officers, to get the league back up and running.
Garber is working with state and provincial officials on a number of key areas, including testing, before the league will return to action, but if it does manage to get the players back on the pitch this year things will look very different to what we’re used to.
“[We’re] working on a number of different scenarios that could have us playing either in a singular location, or in a regional location, or maybe even in a handful of markets, more than likely behind closed doors without fans,” Garber told TSN. “There’s been an enterprise-wide focus on the return to play as quickly as we possibly can.”
These “studio games” could be pushed as late into the year as possible if need be, with the league able to get around localized coronavirus restrictions and regional weather issues by having games in venues where that wouldn’t come into the equation.
“Could we go to a handful of locations and perhaps play a tournament?,” Garber mused. “Could that lead into a new way of selecting the MLS champion if we’re unable to get into local markets? If we’re into local markets, what would these markets be and how will they roll out across the US and Canada?
“Would it be a regular season continuation or maybe it could even be part of this tournament concept? All of it requires testing and all of it requires us to be able to get our players back to training as soon as possible.”
A number of ideas have been floated for getting North American sporting leagues back up and running, ranging from the more extreme of cruise ships and bio-domes, to simply hiring hotels in a city and having all the players quarantined together and playing matches out of one venue with minimal outside contact.
I’m still backing my suggestion of a hunger games format, but more on that later in the week!
As Garber mentioned, testing is the key to that, but so is getting the players on board with any such proposal that could see them uprooted from their homes and their families for a set period of time.
There’s not been any official comment on that issue from the Major League Soccer Players Association (MLSPA) and it would be interesting to see the appetite of the players for such a concept.
Vancouver Whitecaps players rep Jake Nerwinski would naturally prefer matches to be played in front of fans but he’s fully aware how unrealistic that looks right now, with safety for all paramount.
“It’s a hard decision to make, to have games behind [closed] doors, but it’s going to be the best decision to do probably going forward,” Nerwinski told media on a Zoom conference call on Tuesday. “If we have the opportunity to play games, we have to do it in some capacity, whatever way that may be decided on.
“The league has been in contact with the PA almost every single day over what the new updates are, what the new challenges are, and the possibilities of this league going forward. So right now there are just so many uncertainties, so we don’t really know what to expect and I guess when it happens, we just have to deal with it.”
Whitecaps midfielder Andy Rose can’t speak for all of the players but he certainly wouldn’t be averse to taking part in a centralized tournament scenario.
“I don’t know if we’re quite there yet,” Rose added. “I wouldn’t want to speculate at what point MLS decides that that’s the best way forward, but you have to think about the best way to play as many games as possible.
“That’s what we all want. If it gets to that point, of course we all need to be willing to be easy and to roll with it and do whatever’s necessary to play as many games as possible this season.”
Garber feels it is far too premature to discuss putting a date on when it would make it impossible for MLS to return for some kind of 2020 season, but as things currently stand, you have to feel that some kind of tournament is likely the best option that’s going to be open to the league the longer that restrictions are in place in a number of areas.
What that could look like is an intriguing concept.
Do you have it in just one location like California, Vegas, Texas, or Florida, where weather is not likely going to be an issue if you need to go late into the year? A lot will depend on how each area is dealing with the virus and what rules and regulations are in place around it.
Do you go with a straight knockout format or group matches and how many weeks is it feasible to run such a tournament to maximise games, while keeping everyone safe, not just from the virus but from burn out?
With 26 teams making it difficult or organize, and from a television standpoint where they’ll certainly want as many matches to broadcast as possible, I think we can probably rule out a straight knockout tournament. Having all 26 teams travelling to one place as well doesn’t make a lot of sense either. The more people you have in one place, the greater risk you have.
Two initial venues, one for the Western Conference and one for the Eastern, is far more likely. If you want completely neutral you could have Las Vegas for the West and something like the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando for the East. If neutrality isn’t an issue, I guess you’d be looking at Houston Dynamo and Orlando City as potential hosts.
I’d actually argue for two venues for each conference, make it more regional, with six teams in one venue and seven in the other so that there’s less travel for all concerned.
In the West that could see Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, San Jose, and the two LA teams in one place, with the other seven elsewhere. Advance the top two to a Final Four with the top two in the East, or if you really want more games and there hasn’t been any issues, have an Elite 8 scenario.
It’s certainly workable, but there’s so many moving parts and unknowns. There could be a second wave cases break out in the summer if restrictions are lifted too early. We could have a scenario where local restrictions could prevent some teams from leaving their state or province if things are still not under control. And, of course, there’s the big issue of the Canada/US border and what that will look like.
Could you have a scenario where the league resumes without every team taking part? For sporting integrity you would hope not, but I certainly wouldn’t rule that out. For me, it has to be all 26 or no season.
There’s a lot of work and uncertainty ahead, but Garber is keen to make something happen this season if at all possible.
“Players play to win trophies,” Garber told TSN. “Win trophies for themselves, for their team, for their communities. They want to be written in the history books. It’s such a driver of our entire industry. So we are doing everything we can to ensure that we can crown a champion in 2020.”