Are you starving for live, domestic sports to watch? Well, here’s a test to see just how famished you are: If you haven’t given soccer the time of day before now, are you ready to change your mind?
Major League Soccer officially announced Wednesday its resumption of play July 8 with a World Cup-style tournament, sans fans, inside the same Disney Wide World of Sports bubble in Orlando into which the NBA will send its players later that month. (And in case you’re wondering, yes it is big enough to house two leagues, and that probably will be part of Disney’s advertising going forward.)
It’s an intriguing opportunity for MLS, the chance to fill a team sports vacuum in much the way that Germany’s Bundesliga got the jump on Europe’s other leagues.
Of course, MLS won’t be absolutely first. The National Women’s Soccer League will beat it by 11 days with its own Challenge Cup tournament in Salt Lake City, with a similar format and with CBS televising the opener and the final. The difference: That tournament apparently will be the sum and total of the NWSL’s season, whereas MLS intends to eventually resume games in home markets, again likely without fans.
But there’s one similarity. Tournament play doesn’t seem to be for everybody.
The NWSL event, to be played largely on artificial turf, will not include some U.S. Women’s National team players, including Megan Rapinoe. Meanwhile, there remains some doubt as to whether one of MLS’ marquee players, LAFC star and 2019 league MVP Carlos Vela, will join his team in Orlando.
Vela and his wife are expecting their second child, likely in early October. The health risks will be a determining factor, and so too will be the idea of being possibly sequestered for as many as 43 days. The team would be mandated to arrive in Orlando July 1, a week before the July 8 opener, and could be there all the way through an Aug. 11 final.
LAFC spokesman Seth Burton said in an email Wednesday that there is “no update on confirmation for Carlos or any other players yet. His wife is pregnant, and we are working through players’ individual situations with them in the coming days.”
Vela isn’t the only one in this predicament. Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, the Galaxy’s newest star, also has a pregnant wife, as does Orlando City’s Nani. The latter, we don’t know about. As for Chicharito, Galaxy spokesman Chris Glidden confirmed Wednesday that he plans to play.
Seattle’s Jordan Morris, a member of the U.S. Men’s National Team pool, has Type 1 diabetes (and when he met reporters at his team’s training site recently, he was wearing a mask). There are likely other players, and certainly coaches, who fall into similar high-risk categories.
MLS commissioner Don Garber said on a teleconference Wednesday that any decision to play will be the player’s, “in conjunction with and consultation with their doctors, their personal doctors and their team doctors. Nobody who has any pre-existing medical condition where their doctor doesn’t believe it is safe for them to play would be required or even encouraged to do so.”
As for Vela?
“We have other players that have wives that are expecting,” Garber said. “We have other special situations that we’re managing through. Between now and the start of the tournament, we and our clubs will work with our players to ensure that we can find the right way to manage through those issues.”
Going into that bubble for an extended period for our entertainment might be necessary because of the health concerns, which are magnified further because of the nature of the sport. But it’s a huge, huge ask. If a player decides it’s not worth the risk for himself or his family, I’m certainly not going to second guess his decision.
MLS players will have to test negative for COVID-19 twice within 24 hours before even being cleared to travel, and will also get an antibody test as part of a comprehensive physical. They’ll be tested again on their arrival in Florida and again every other day leading up to their first game, and will only be able to practice once that first test comes back negative.
There will be social distancing, and masks, and temperature checks and the rest. A positive test would mean isolation and contact tracing to identify anyone who, according to the league’s medical protocol, has spent at least 10 minutes within six feet of that person.
Multiple positive tests? That’s a scenario no one wants to consider, I suspect. A tournament concept that took three months to put together, by the commissioner’s count, could come crashing down around them.
“There’s no specific protocol for how many positive tests would have us take a step back,” Garber said. “It’s why we’re so focused on regular testing, and ensuring that we do what we need to do to keep our players safe, and then managing what would happen should a player test positive.”
There is a lot at stake. This is MLS’ opportunity to grab our attention, both among those who are true believers and those who are ready to watch anything. It’s a chance to experiment with different ways of televising the sport, and the commissioner promised there will be some technological bells and whistles that we haven’t thought about. And the game times – 9 a.m., 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Eastern, structured to avoid the heat of the Florida day – could be ideal for West Coast teams if, logically, their games get those 7:30 PDT slots.
If this tournament goes well, it can be not only a jumping-off point for the rest of the season – although exactly when the league returns to its home markets, probably without fans, remains somewhat vague – but a selling point when the MLS media rights package comes up for negotiation after the 2022 season.
The alternative? As we’ve seen, this virus is diabolical.
@Jim_Alexander on Twitter