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Sidelined By Coronavirus, MLS Will Return In July With Leaguewide Tournament

Sporting Kansas City midfielder Gianluca Busio at the 2019 MLS Homegrown Game at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando, Fla. The MLS will restart its 2020 season with a monthlong tournament at the complex.
Andy Mead
Major League Soccer
Sporting Kansas City midfielder Gianluca Busio at the 2019 MLS Homegrown Game at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando, Fla. The MLS will restart its 2020 season with a monthlong tournament at the complex.

Nearly four months after the MLS put its season on hold, pro soccer will return to the pitch with a leaguewide tournament at Disney World near Orlando, Fla., starting July 8.

The competition has an unsubtle moniker: The MLS is Back Tournament. And it isn't just a one-off — each game will count in the regular-season standings. The winner will also net a spot in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League.

"We are pleased to team up with Disney to relaunch the 2020 MLS season and get back to playing soccer," MLS Commissioner Don Garber said in a statement. "The opportunity to have all 26 clubs in a controlled environment enables us to help protect the health of our players, coaches and staff as we return to play."

After scant live sports to watch since the coronavirus pandemic took hold, the 54-game tournament will provide a football buffet: matches nearly every day, mostly in the evening. The tournament's structure will be similar to the World Cup, with a group stage in which each team plays at least three games, followed by knockout rounds. The final is set to take place Aug. 11.

The games will be held without fans in attendance, though the MLS promisesthat TV broadcasts will include "experimental technologies" and "advanced audio and fan integration elements." It's not clear whether that will include the simulated crowd noise that's being used on some overseas broadcasts of Germany's Bundesliga.

The teams will be sorted into six groups: three in the Eastern Conference — one with six teams and two with four teams — and three Western Conference groups of four teams each. The tournament draw will take place June 11. Considered the "host team," Orlando City SC will be given the top seed in the six-team group.

And if you like the drama of penalty shootouts, there could be a lot of them: Knockout-round matches tied at the end of regulation will go straight to penalty kicks.

Teams will arrive at the Disney complex — its full name is ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort — starting June 24.

The 220-acre complex opened in 1997 and hosts both youth sports competitions and events like the NFL Pro Bowl Week. It has 18 multipurpose fields that can be used for soccer. The NBA announcedlast month that it plans to resume its 2019-2020 season at the Disney complex as well.

The MLS announced a raft of health and safety protocols for the tournament.

Before traveling to Orlando, all "essential members of a club delegation" will undergo PCR tests for active COVID-19 infection, and players will also receive serology tests for antibodies. Those who test positive on the PCR test will be isolated and not travel, while players who test positive for antibodies can travel so long as they do not exhibit symptoms. Once they arrive, individuals will be tested every day for the first 14 days, and then tested regularly thereafter.

The games themselves will look a little different amid the pandemic: Players are asked to exercise care when spitting or clearing their noses, and coaches and players on the bench will be required to wear masks. Soccer standbys such as kissing the ball and trading jerseys are also verboten. Clubs can also now make up to five substitutions per match, per a new international soccer rule.

After the tournament, the league plans to resume the rest of its season with games in the teams' home cities, with a schedule yet to be announced. The MLS suspended its games on March 12, just two weeks after the 2020 season began.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.