MLS is back

MLS is Back Tournament 101

It’s official: FC Cincinnati will play again this summer.

We knew this previously, but it wasn’t until Wednesday morning when we had a confirmed date.

The league will resume play on July 8 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando in a World Cup-style competition called the MLS is Back Tournament.

These are the basics:

  • All 26 teams are competing for a minimum of three games, which count as regular season matches. If a club progresses, it’ll make the knockout stage. The tournament’s winner qualifies for the 2021 Concacaf Champions League and wins $1.1 million.
  • Teams will be placed into six groups, which will be determined Thursday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. For this tournament, Nashville SC were moved from the Western Conference to the Eastern Conference.
  • Games will be broadcasted on ESPN and the ESPN networks, with kickoff times set for 9 a.m., 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. This schedule was designed to accommodate the swampy climate every team will become immersed into. In total, there will be 54 games over 26 matchdays.

Photo take by Kevin Kuo - USA TODAY Sports

MLS Commissioner Don Garber discussed the tournament’s details during a press conference with media on Wednesday afternoon.

Once the league suspended play two weeks into the season, Garber said it began planning MLS’ return in a manner that would be healthy, safe and exciting.

“This is a project that literally took nearly three months to pull together and the combination of efforts,” Garber said, citing everyone from league employees to healthcare professionals and media companies.

Of course, this means MLS, a league that prides itself on its in-game atmosphere, will now play games in a closed-door environment.

“We very much knew from the very beginning that producing games in an environment outside of our stadiums and without fans would be challenging operationally,” the commissioner said. “It’s certainly a challenge from a production perspective and we will invest deeply in creating an environment on air that will be exciting and compelling for all of our viewers.”

Mentioning on-air production is a key takeaway from the MLS is Back Tournament announcement.

The regular season was suspended on March 12. When it returns on July 8, it’ll mean that other leagues around the world have already resumed play, of course. (Premier League, La Liga and Bundesliga, etc.)

But looking at this tournament from an American perspective offers a different lens.

Photo taken by Noah K. Murray – USA TODAY Sports

Other than the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) beginning June 27, MLS is the first professional sports league in the country to resume its regular season.

The NBA will also restart at Walt Disney World, but with 22 teams and on July 31. The NHL hasn’t announced a return date, while the MLB and NFL seasons haven’t started yet.

Yes, this is a chance to grow MLS in this country.

“It’s very important and it’s why we were in such close, and, at times, challenging discussions with the players related to an agreement for the work rules this year,” Garber said. “We’ve lost some time. We hoped to be out way earlier than we were able to finalize with a July 8 start. We frankly had hoped to be able to start in the latter part in June. We were just not able to do that.

“So, getting out early is important, and it’s not necessarily about getting out first, because you have to get it right,” Garber said. “Without the concept of a tournament, we’d still be sitting here waiting.”

Other notes:

- Garber said Nashville joining the Eastern Conference was just for this tournament. Does that mean it won’t stick in the future?

“There will be realignment at some point in our league as we continue to look at expansion through 30 teams,” he said. “The decision for now is simply about how we’re going to manage the tournament.”

- MLS is still researching play returning in market, and Garber said he’ll continue to provide updates as they come.

“We do not have yet exposure as to what the future for the MLS schedule look like in 2020, and how many markets will have fans, if any,” Garber said. “I can assure you that we're working closely with our clubs and clubs are working closely with local, state, and medical authorities to ensure when we do return we're doing it in accordance with accordance with local guidelines.”

- Earlier this week, MLS posted a statement saying it promotes players’ rights to peacefully protest during a national anthem (i.e., kneeling). Garber said that’s a statement from 2017, not 2020, and it’s something the league has always believed in.

Additionally, he said the league and its clubs need to do more to end racial inequality and promote inclusivity.

“It's not just enough to post social media posts and it's not just enough to have ad campaigns,” Garber said. “We now need to begin the really important task for us, bringing together the entire MLS community our clubs, our owners our players, our partners to address these issues, to try to create programs that can lead to meaningful change.

“It starts with dialogue and that dialogue has begun,” he continued. “But now it has to turn into a real commitment to action, including our league and our clubs, supporting financially those organizations that can make a difference to address these systemic issues in our world.”