MLS during COVID

Evaluating the challenges and opportunities for MLS in playing in COVID era

MLS players are back to training on an individual basis and there are reports about how the rest of 2020 could play out. ASN's Brian Sciaretta looks at the challenges and opportunities of it all. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
May 14, 2020
12:05 PM

LAST WEEK, MLS players returned to the field for voluntary individual workouts and while no set timeline was made for the next steps, it was a sign of progress. In recent days, however, more plans have come to light.

On Wednesday, Sporting Kansas City head coach Peter Vermes said that the next step beyond the individual workouts will be having small group sessions. But before that session could take place, it will require thorough testing of all players and that such tests will need quick results.

"All of our players and staff will be taking tests to see if they actually have the virus," Vermes said on a conference call. "We will also be taking the antibody test to see if we had it at some point and built up antibodies towards it. We’re not sure if we’re going to do that Friday or Monday."

"The idea from that is that we also have an individual person who does nothing but work on Sporting Kansas City’s testing protocol going forward for small-group training, full team training and games. Each and every team has been requested to go out and search for partners within their (markets). We don’t want to have to do a test and then send it back to New York. We need a much quicker turnaround, so we’ve been working on that as well. We think we have a very good solution in both situations."

Assuming MLS teams get to that point, details of how to resume a season have surfaced. As first reported by Sam Stejskal for the Athletic which ASN can confirm, a tentative plan was for the season to resume in Orlando.

Under this plan, individual workouts would resume in Orlando on June 1 and small group trainings would begin on June 8. Full training would then take place on June 15. The ideal start of games would be June 22. It is not yet known what the possibilities for friendlies would be or the precise format but the challenges and opportunities are enormous.


Previous plans involved were to have games played in numerous locations throughout the country but it appears as if the Orlando location is the first option.

What to make of this possibility?

The Bundesliga is going to be the torch bearer for leagues who are attempting to restart. It is wise to follow its lead in terms of safety and management – should something go wrong.

The opportunity MLS has is huge. It could be the leader North American team sports undergoing a restart. Its games could be among the country’s only live team sports on television.

Of course, it is easier said than done. Playing behind closed doors will be easy if no one gets sick. But should there be a player who tests positive, how will the league and teams react? How quickly can another round of tests be administered? Will it suspend play throughout the entire league?

There also has to be discussion of how isolated will players be during this entire process. Many players have families. Some players have wives who are pregnant. Will the families be able to join the players in Orlando? If so, what exposure will families have to the outside world?

A worst-case scenario could mean that one positive case could have a rippling effect if the entire league is in such close proximity. What then are the availabilities for subsequent tests? But if something does go wrong and a few positive tests emerge, there is also a lot of opportunity. If MLS and its teams handle the matter well. If they can limit the spread, isolate, and follow a well-defined protocol, it could provide a blueprint as to how to resume professional sports elsewhere with confidence. 

Of course, Orlando is also the home to Disney and the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. The network is desperately looking for live sports to cover and it has the rights to some MLS games. It could be a powerful ally in this whole restart endeavor.

But these are all questions every league in the United States (the NBA, NHL, NFL, MLB) will have to tackle and MLS could be the leader.

The games themselves

If MLS has to cancel the season, it cold be a huge problem. Other than two games in early March, most teams have not been playing regular games on a consistent basis since last October. Canceling the season would push that duration to 17 months since the end of the 2019 regular season.

There is pressure to continue the season or at least create a separate type of format for 2020. The goal should be to play as many games as possible for the remainder of the year.

Behind closed doors is tough from a motivational factor. It’s made even more difficult if the games are on side practice fields. While there will be no crowds regardless, games in empty stadiums probably play better on television than games on side fields.

Games without crowds tend to lack a lot of passion but for anyone who has ever followed the U-20 World Cup with interest, those games are typically played in big stadiums with very few people. So the excitement will come down to audience’s attachment to the teams. For casual viewers, it will probably be tough to follow in an excited manner.

Aside from the lack of crowds, this proposed tournament also could provide for a different type of approach on the field. If MLS wants to play as many games as possible the remainder of 2020, it will probably lead to heavier squad rotation. With only two weeks of practice (in groups) before the restart of games and the potential of multiple games a week, squad rotation will be a necessity. The most successful teams could be those that use depth. Younger players and backups could play more in 2020 that previously planned. That could result in different players emerging if they successfully take advantage of the opportunities.

For now, it is impossible to say where this going or how it will plan out. But at least this whole process appears to be moving in a discernible direction.

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