Major League Soccer's plan for getting back on the field is now official, almost three months after the 2020 season shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. The return will come in the form of a World Cup style competition to be held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex at Walt Disney World. The competition, called the MLS is Back Tournament, will begin with a group stage followed by knockout rounds.
Plans for this competition have been in the works for almost the entirety of the shutdown, and they didn't come to fruition until some tense negotiations with the MLS Players Association over a new collective bargaining agreement had been concluded. All told, the players gave up over $100 million in economic concessions.
With the plans now in place, here's what you need to know -- and the things we still don't know -- about MLS's return.
What will the tournament look like?
The league's 26 teams were divided into six groups. There was one six-team group in the Eastern Conference -- thanks to Nashville moving from the Western Conference to the Eastern Conference -- along with two four-team groups. The Western Conference consists of three four-team groups.
As the host city, Orlando was seeded in Group A, with Atlanta United, Toronto FC, LAFC, the Seattle Sounders and Real Salt Lake comprising the remaining seeded teams. The games will begin on July 8, with each team playing three matches. (Fans in the United States will be able to watch games live on ESPN networks.) The top two teams in each group will advance to the knockout stages, with the final being played on Aug. 11. (Full game schedule is TBC.)
What are some of the highlights from the draw?
Several top rivalries were drawn together in the group stages on Thursday, with LAFC and LA Galaxy ending up the highlight of Group F alongside Portland Timbers and the Houston Dynamo.
Defending MLS Cup champions Seattle Sounders were drawn against their rivals in the Pacific Northwest, the Vancouver Whitecaps, in Group B while the team they defeated in the 2019 final, Toronto FC, were drawn in Group C against fellow Canadians Montreal Impact as well as D.C. United and the New England Revolution.
The two Florida teams, Inter Miami CF and Orlando City SC, were also drawn together in Group A alongside Philadelphia Union, New York City FC, Chicago Fire and Nashville SC in the tournament's only six-team group.
Find the full draw here.
The kickoff times are weird. Why is that?
At first glance, the schedule certainly seems bizarre. The games will be held at 9 a.m. ET, 8 p.m. ET, and 10:30 p.m. ET (2 p.m. GMT, 1 a.m. GMT and 3 a.m. GMT). The reasoning is simple: it will avoid playing games in the midday blast furnace -- average high temperatures are 92 degrees, with an average low of 78 degrees -- that is high summer in Florida.
How many people will be inside the bubble? And can they leave?
All told, there will be 1,200-1,500 inside the bubble, which will (mostly) consist of the Swan and Dolphin Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, and the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Kissimmee. These include players, coaches and support staff, as well as league personnel. The players and staff from hometown club Orlando City will also be inside the bubble. Leaving the hotel for anything other than team- and/or league-approved events is prohibited for as long as that player's team is in the tournament.
Teams will head down to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World starting on June 24, but each club has some flexibility in terms of arrival time. Those teams operating in locales with loosening stay-at-home orders will opt to stay in their home markets as long as possible, helping to limit time spent away from families. That means it may be July before some teams arrive in Orlando.
It's expected that six to eight teams, usually those subject to more stringent local restrictions, will opt to get to Orlando closer to June 24.
What if a player goes stir-crazy and leaves? In a subsequent interview with ESPN, Garber conceded that "the bubble is not airtight." But in terms of the steps to be taken if a player decides to go out on the town, the protocol on that is still being crafted.
In a bid to prevent players from breaking the bubble, Garber said, "There will be a significant amount of player-engaged activities that our group is now working with Disney on."
That said, discipline will be required. "We're going to need our collective commitment to ensure that we're not leaving that environment in any way because that's only going to threaten the health of themselves and everybody around them," Garber told ESPN.
What about on the field during game days?
Game days will see personnel divided into three tiers based on the level of testing they've undergone. The top tier includes players, coaches, club officials, referees and medical staff. Pool photographers, broadcasters, league staff, VAR staff, communications staff and the stretcher crew will fit into Tier 2. Tier 3 will be comprised of media, non-rights holder TV crews, photographers and a club's digital staff.
Tier 3 personnel will not be subject to testing for COVID-19. The league is considering having a limited number of media inside the bubble, which would require them to undergo testing. All told, 183 people will be on or close to the field for matches, with the number increasing to 189 for the opener and final. (More on testing further down.)
Have the players signed off? How do they feel about it?
The players have agreed to go, but there are definitely mixed emotions. On the one hand, players are eager to get back on the field; on the other, they don't want to be away from home for six weeks to do it. The bitterness from the CBA negotiations -- in which the league threatened to lock out the players -- remains. Safety is an issue as well.
"Players are going to show up. I think players are going to compete, and, we'll do that part of it," said Minnesota United midfielder Ethan Finlay. "But there's a lot of ownership that these teams are gonna have to take because, frankly, we're taking a bit of a safety risk, not just on the health and safety side but with fatigue. Injury risk is going to go up probably dramatically.
"Guys understand that and know that, but they're also willing to do it because of the circumstances that we're in."
Does every player have to go?
Exceptions will be made, but on a very limited basis. Players with an underlying medical condition that might make them more susceptible to contracting COVID-19 must get permission from the team medical staff to go to Orlando. A player might also be excused if their partner is pregnant, a situation that applies to both the LA Galaxy's Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez and LAFC's Carlos Vela, the reigning league MVP.
A recent report in the L.A. Times indicated that Hernandez would take part in the tournament. Vela's status is still to be determined.
How often will there be testing?
All individuals deemed "essential members" of a team's delegation will be tested both prior and after traveling to Orlando. Prior to travel, these tests include two Polymerase Chain Reaction ("PCR") tests 24 hours apart. Players will also undergo a baseline serology (antibody) test as part of a physical exam that also includes a temperature check and the completion of a screening questionnaire.
Players, coaches and support staff will be tested every other day for two weeks after arriving in Florida. Those individuals, as well as referees, will then be tested regularly, including prior to each matchday.
What other steps is MLS taking to prevent players and staff from contracting COVID-19?
In conjunction with leading health experts, MLS has created guidelines and best practices to help reduce risk and prevent spread of the coronavirus. These include wearing face coverings, social distancing, general hygiene (avoid touching face, wash hands frequently, avoid sharing food, bottles, towels or equipment, etc.), as well as disinfecting surfaces. These guidelines will be extended for matches.
Players, coaches and officials are asked to exercise care when spitting or clearing their nose during games, and those sitting on the bench are required to wear masks and practice social distancing to the maximum extent possible. Players involved in the game are asked not to exchange jerseys or kiss the ball.
The Walt Disney World Resort and the Swan and Dolphin Hotel will be providing enhanced cleaning of all venues and enforcing appropriate capacity management and other social distancing guidelines.
Is everyone at the complex getting tested?
The definition of "essential personnel" doesn't include everyone. Individuals working at the hotels and the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex will undergo self-temperature screenings and a standardized screening questionnaire, but they will not be tested. A positive response to the daily questionnaire or a temperature check above 100.3 degrees must be reported, and the individual in question will be isolated immediately and PCR testing will be performed.
The lack of testing would seem to create a vulnerability in the "bubble" that MLS has created, but Garber said he isn't worried.
"Those staff/people will not be coming in close contact with our players," Garber said. "And if they were going to be in close contact, we would manage it through a different protocol. So we're all going to be living in a world where we're not going to be able to test every person that comes in contact with each other or comes in contact with us as we go on with our lives."
What happens if someone tests positive?
Prior to traveling to Orlando, individuals who test positive for COVID-19 will not travel and will be isolated and overseen by club medical staff. Contact tracing will also be triggered to identify close contacts. Individuals whose test reveals they had a previous COVID-19 infection may travel to Orlando if they are no longer symptomatic.
If an individual tests positive while in Orlando, an isolation protocol will be implemented for the player along with contact tracing.
In terms of what would happen if there were multiple positive tests, Garber said there is no specific protocol in terms of the tipping point that would cause the tournament to be suspended or canceled.
"It's why we're so focused on regular testing and ensure that we do what we need to do to keep our players safe," said Garber.
Given that the NBA will be in that location part of the time, what level of collaboration was there between the two leagues and Disney?
In the wake of the pandemic, sources tell ESPN that MLS has been in close contact with other sports leagues, collaborating on such issues as human resources, legal issues and security. That includes the NBA. Garber and NBA commissioner Adam Silver have a collegial relationship that sees them meeting every few months. That level of contact has increased given the upheaval the sports world has undergone.
But in terms of the Orlando tournament, Garber told ESPN.com that there has "not been a lot of contact" between MLS and the NBA. Rather, the conversations have been with Disney executives in a bid to make sure the tournament runs smoothly.
"We've been negotiating and dealing with Disney and our hotels to determine what our needs are operationally," Garber told ESPN.com. "I haven't had those conversations, but our staff has with Disney to ensure that we are able to both be accommodated in a very large resort and that both leagues' needs are being met."
Will these games count toward the regular-season standings?
Yes and no. The group stage games will count in the standings in the standard sense -- three points for a win, one point for a tie -- while the knockout stage games won't count at all.
So what's to stop teams from putting all of their efforts into the group stage and none thereafter? A purse of $1.1 million should do the trick, though we don't yet know the breakdown of how this money will be allocated. The winner of the tournament will also secure a spot in next year's CONCACAF Champions League.
What about the regular-season schedule after this is over?
MLS is hoping that by the time the tournament ends on Aug. 11, restrictions around the country will have loosened up enough that games can be held in a team's home stadium. Those games are likely to happen without fans, though Garber offered hope that if the situation improves enough, fans might be able to attend games before the season is done.
"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 even a possibility that some fans might be able to attend games," Garber said.
The hope is that the league will get an extra 18 games in after Orlando, which would make for a 23-game regular season. That's about two-thirds of a normal league schedule. One scenario has MLS Cup being played in mid-December, but the situation remains fluid.
(Editor's Note: ESPN is owned by the Walt Disney Company.)