Major League Soccer is planning to return to action after the COVID-19 suspension by staging a tournament that will have all 26 teams in Orlando, Fla., for a tournament at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports athletic complex.
The tournament has not yet been officially announced by MLS and still needs the approval of the MLS Players Association. Sources have said that the league’s working plan would see the 26 teams divided into four groups. Two of the groups would consist of teams from the Eastern Conference, and two would consist of teams from the Western Conference, with Nashville temporarily switching from West to East (which makes more geographic sense.)
The defending U.S. Open Cup winners Atlanta United, MLS Cup holders Seattle Sounders, and Supporters’ Shield winners LAFC would each be seeded in separate groups, with the remaining group seeded with tournament “hosts” Orlando City.
The remainder of the groups would be allocated via a random draw of teams within their own conferences, with one Eastern Conference group containing eight teams and the other three groups with six teams each.
The initial proposal in the working plan would have teams play five games apiece, with the top two teams in each group advancing to an eight-team, knockout-style competition. Multiple sources indicate that those group-stage games would count toward MLS league standings. The league intends to its teams to eventually resume a portion of the regular season (behind-closed-doors). However, no final decisions have been made.
What exactly the teams would be playing for in the knockout stage of the Orlando tournament is unclear, apart from providing broadcast rights holders with revenue.
The tournament already has a tagline, “MLS is back.” A marketing campaign will also be implemented for this endeavour.
Plans for the regular season
If the regular season can eventually be resumed sometime after the Orlando tournament, the working plan calls for no inter-conference games. Nashville would remain in the East for the rest of 2020, thus giving the Eastern Conference 14 teams and the Western 12.
The working plan also calls for playoffs after the end of the regular season, in which 9 teams in each conference would qualify. Again, this is designed to provide teams with a greater opportunity to earn gameday revenue and the league with an additional six games of television pay.
Once again, nothing has been finalised.
In news first reported by the Washington Post, expanded on by Sam Stejskal in The Athletic last week, the working plan would see teams arrive in central Florida and report to the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex on or about June 1st. They would be lodged at the Coronado Springs Resort and would begin closely monitored and quarantined individual training sessions, followed by small-group training sessions starting on June 8th. By mid-June, the training would become full squad and continue for two weeks. Games would begin at the beginning of July.
It’s been confirmed by sources that the league has circled July 3rd in the calendar as the start date for games.
MLSPA must approval plan
The working plan, once it is finalized, must be approved by the players association, the MLSPA. The players association has submitted a list of around 100 questions that it wants the league to answer. While it is alleged that not all of those questions have been answered, the MLSPA expects the league to respond to its questions and to the counteroffer on the issue of pay cuts (see below) very soon.
The MLSPA has a responsibility to the players, so naturally, the players’ health and safety concerns need to be addressed. Players would not be allowed to leave the resort, but the hotel workers come and go each day. This has been an issue for the MLSPA and players, who question whether they would truly be safe when the workers onsite leave and come back each day. Ordering hotel workers to be quarantined also would likely be unacceptable to the workers, their union, and the hotel operators, putting aside the issue of it possibly being illegal.
According to published reports, more than a few players are not pleased with the prospect of being on lock-down without their families for weeks. Notable stars such as LAFC’s Carlos Vela, the LA Galaxy’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, and Orlando City’s Nani are specifically named. For example, Vela’s wife, Saioa Cañiabano, is 15 weeks pregnant with the couple’s second child as of April 14th.
Players of course get paid to play, and they want to play. Despite that, some have expressed their own concerns about the potential physical and mental effects of living in quarantine, entirely separated from their families for as many as two months in the middle of a pandemic. Philadelphia Union captain and designated player Alejandro Bedoya voiced his opinion:
“I would start off by saying that I think every one of us agrees that we want to get back to playing,” Bedoya told ESPN’s Taylor Twellman earlier this week. “I want to get back out there, being competitive, (playing) games. The staff wants to be out there, fans want to be watching games, but I will say that this all feels a little bit rushed.
I think that we all need to be partners in this, you know, ESPN and Disney, which owns ESPN, is just partnering with MLS to help the owners out and to show games. I think the players are taking all the risks by going down [to Orlando], being isolated, it’s a strong term to say, but it’s like being in a luxurious prison.”
While the players and team personnel would likely be well-protected, the fact remains that COVID-19 has not gone away; new cases continue to rise, despite certain states that have “reopened” and efforts on the part of some state and federal government officials to downplay its threat. The United States is behind the curve in the pandemic of countries such as Germany where the Bundesliga has returned to play. Moreover, the US has the highest number of infections and deaths of any country. All of this should suggest to sports leagues in the US to proceed very slowly and cautiously.
Tournament plan set against talk of a pay cut
The timing of the restart of MLS is also set against the backdrop of a potential pay cut for players. MLS has proposed a 20 percent pay reduction for all players. The MLSPA responded with a counteroffer that would save owners $100 million through the 2024 season, and would reduce the salary cut to only five percent, with a 5 percent wage deferral and reductions in player bonuses. The league allegedly has not responded to the MLSPA’s counteroffer regarding the potential pay cut.
Obviously, until the MLSPA has its questions answered, and has time to reflect and negotiate with the league on both the tournament and the pay cut issue, the union will not approve the Orlando tournament.
How the new Collective Bargaining Agreement affects talks
The discussions about the Orlando tournament as well as pay cuts also invokes the labour situation, namely the new five-year Collective Bargaining Agreement that MLS and MLSPA reached agreement on just prior to the start of the 2020 season. That contract has not yet been ratified by either side.
Because the agreement has not been formally executed, it is possible that the owners could force the union’s hand, or risk having the owners lock out the players, which would cut off their pay and end their league-provided health insurance benefits. (A discussion of why health insurance should never be tied to a job is beyond the scope of this story but the predicament of the players is not unique in this regard and provides yet another example of the need to radically alter health care in the United States.)
MLSPA executive director Bob Foose said: “Conversations between the MLSPA and the league about concessions have been challenging, but constructive. Despite the fact that CBA negotiations were just concluded and we anticipated a deal for the next five seasons, to share in the sacrifice caused by the coronavirus crisis, MLS players have stepped up to offer a package that would bring over $100M in economic relief to the league and its owners.”
Is a tournament really the best way to proceed?
It is a fair question to ask whether the idea of a month or more long tournament in Orlando is the best way to proceed. The analysis requires weighing both the interests of the league and those of the players.
With some teams still not able to begin individual workouts due to local stay-at-home orders, bringing the 26 teams to Orlando would level the playing field in terms of the ability of teams to prepare for the 2020 season if and when it can restart.
There is an obvious advantage to the league and its media rights holders in staging the tournament. The disadvantages to the players have been noted above. On top of what has already been said, there is the climatic conditions in Orlando in July and August. It is reported that game times would have to be early morning or in the evening to avoid the severe heat and humidity of a Central Florida summer, which is even hotter than the conditions that prevail further south in Miami.
Would it not just be better to restart the season behind closed doors in each team’s home market? It seems to be working just fine for the Bundesliga and will be the plan for LaLiga, Serie A and the Premier League. The league could still rework the schedule to keep travel down in a shortened season.
Maybe it’s just too logical.