TORONTO – MLS is back!
The 25th season of Major League Soccer will resume on July 8 with a World Cup-style tournament in Florida at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at the Walt Disney Resort.
Dubbed the ‘MLS is Back Tournament’, the competition will see 54 matches played by 26 teams divided into 6 groups before breaking into a knockout format leading to a final on August 11.
The draw will be held today, June 11, at 3:30 pm.
Throughout the three months that have gone into planning the health and safety of all involved has been front of mind.
“I'm confident that they've taken all the precautions,” said Toronto FC President Bill Manning on a Zoom call on Wednesday afternoon. “The number one priority from day one was safety; it has to be.”
“Certainly it does not come without its challenges, as you can imagine. I have to trust that the medical officials that are going to be down there are going to be on top of this,” he continued. “It's important that, with the right safety protocols, we get back to play. You're seeing it all over the world now in different soccer leagues and now different leagues here in North America. And [the complex in Florida] is the best environment [to] get all the teams together.”
In the midst of a pandemic, there has been much uncertainty. The league, in consultation with a range of specialists and government officials, has devised an extensive health protocol that will be in place at the tournament.
“The first part is just making sure that every single guy who goes feels good about the health and safety protocol that is being put into place,” explained Michael Bradley last week. “The starting points have been very positive in terms of the testing that's going to be available, the frequency of testing, all of these things. That part is important.”
The full protocols can be viewed at MLSsoccer.com.
Mindful of those concerns, who isn’t ready for some MLS action?
“I like that we're going to be back on the field in [a few] weeks,” said Bradley. “In such a difficult period, where there's been so much uncertainty, where guys have had to spend so much time training individually with no real idea of when that was going to end, to now be able to start to get back into small group training with the idea that team training is hopefully around the corner and now we're getting back on the field for games, that part... how can you not be excited about that?”
And that the tournament carries the reward of a spot in the 2021 Concacaf Champions League for the winner only sweetens the pot.
“I’m really excited about the Concacaf Champions League berth,” relished Manning. “A massive tournament, which we have some history with; myself, personally – two finals with two different teams – that really puts a lot of weight to this tournament.”
“I am glad that the time frame got reduced and it then brings a larger group: 16 teams that get into a knockout competition,” continued Manning, referencing earlier possible versions debated. “It's a really cool, unique format to get some group games in and then really have a knockout style competition for a Champions League berth. That really raises the stakes.”
TFC have been given permission to resume full group training beginning Monday and will prepare to head down to Florida ahead of the competition.
While some teams will arrive earlier, Manning sees early July as their preferred departure date.
“We are going to opt to arrive later, the league has given teams that option,” he explained. “We’re required to be in market seven days before our first game and it looks like our first game could be anywhere from July 8 to July 13.”
“It’s very important to the players and the staff to be here with their families,” Manning continued. “And now that we've been given the green light to train as a team we're most comfortable here, at home. We have all the protocols in place, so there was no reason for us to go down to Orlando any earlier.”
The next few weeks will be a second preseason of sorts, buffing off the rust and preparing for action.
“The players are going to do everything we can, together with coaches, to give ourselves the best chance to be sharp and at our highest level when the games starts,” said Bradley. “Things aren't going to be perfect.”
“But whatever the competition is, whatever the format is, we are going to have a team that goes down there and tries to go after every game, tries to put ourselves in the best possible position to win, like we always do,” he added.
What lies after that remains to be seen, but the hope is that as a new normal emerges the regular season will be able to resume in the clubs respective home markets leading into the MLS Cup Playoffs.
“It's still early,” cautioned Manning. “The first step was to get this tournament in Orlando. Three of the games will count towards the regular season and then the plan is to go back into market and to eventually proceed with the season and into an MLS Cup Playoffs. It’s too early right now to speculate on those details, but that is the next step.”
“I hope that we have the opportunity to play a lot of games in market and finish out a regular season, being cognizant that we're going to follow all the provincial guidelines and all the safety protocols,” he continued. “But that would be ideal: if we could come back into market and be able to play again and travel safely.”
For now, game on!
“Of course, we are very excited to start shortly,” said Alejandro Pozuelo. “We are professional football players so we want to work, we want to play. For my part, I hope [we] start soon because also people want to see the players play.”
TORONTO – MLS is back!