MLS returns to play July 8 with Disney tournament

Major League Soccer is coming back from the coronavirus pandemic with a World Cup-style tournament.

After avoiding the threat of a lockout, MLS announced Wednesday it will begin playing again July 8 in the MLS is Back Tournament, without fans, at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney World.

MLS will be the second pro sports team league in North America to return — the National Women’s Soccer League is set to kick off on June 27 — and hopes to get back to playing a regular-season schedule at its home stadiums at a date to be determined after the tournament.

“Getting out early is important,” commissioner Don Garber said in a Zoom conference call to discuss the announcement, nearly three months after the league had suspended play on March 12. “It’s not necessarily getting out first, because you have to get it right, but getting out there and ensuring that we have the certainty to play games is crucial to the future success of the league.

“Without the concept of a tournament, we’d still be sitting here waiting, like other leagues are, to determine whether or not we’d be receiving the approvals to be able to have enough stadiums open to be able to have a schedule of regular-season games in home markets.”

The tournament format will be similar to the 1994 men’s World Cup, with all 26 teams participating and divided into six groups, which will be drawn live Thursday. Teams will play at least three games in the group stage before advancing to a Round of 16 that begins July 25. The quarterfinals will be played July 30-Aug. 1, the semifinals on Aug. 5-6 and the final on Aug. 11. There will be 54 total matches, which count toward the regular-season standings, with a prize pool of $1.1 million and the winner of the tournament earning a spot in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League.

Games will be played in three different time slots — 9 a.m., 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. — and televised across ESPN, Fox and Univision. Garber said the broadcasts will feature new technologies from an audio and video perspective while working to integrate fans.

COVID-19 and antibody testing will begin before players and staff arrive in Orlando, and those who test positive for COVID-19 will not be allowed on the team’s charter plane. Players and staff will be tested for COVID-19 again upon arriving in Florida and can only begin training once they receive a negative result.

During the first two weeks in Orlando, players and staff will be tested every other day and then “regularly” after that, the league said, including the day before each match.

Garber said there is not a specific number of positive COVID-19 tests that would force the tournament to stop, but if a player tested positive, he would be removed from the tournament, quarantined and contact tracing would be done.

“I know there’s going to be a couple curveballs, I’m sure, just because we’re going to have to feel this out and it’s the first time the league is doing this,” Red Bulls defender Aaron Long said. “As long as we’re ready and willing as a unit to make things safe for everyone and make sure everyone’s comfortable, I’m sure it’s going to be fine.”