Major League Soccer is set to become the first men's professional sports league in North America to return to action amid the coronavirus pandemic, with a World Cup-style, 54-match tournament beginning Wednesday. Here's everything you need to know about the event.
The aptly named "MLS is Back Tournament" is being staged in Orlando, with the players staying inside a bubble at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. All matches will be played on site, with no fans in attendance.
Tonight's opening contest - between Orlando City and Inter Miami - kicks off 16 consecutive days of group games. To beat the severe summer heat, matches will only be played during select time slots, with group-stage games almost exclusively scheduled to kick off at 9 a.m., 8 p.m., or 10:30 p.m. (all times ET).
Every game will be televised in the United States and Canada. Here's the schedule for the opening slate of matches, which runs through the weekend and into Monday:
|July 8||Orlando City vs. Inter Miami||8:00 p.m.||ESPN and TSN|
|July 9||NYCFC vs. Philadelphia||9:00 a.m.||ESPN and TSN|
|July 9||Montreal vs. New England||8:00 p.m.||TUDN and TSN|
|July 10||Seattle vs. San Jose||9:00 p.m.||ESPN and TSN|
|July 11||Atlanta United vs. NYRB||8:00 p.m.||FOX and TSN|
|July 11||Cincinnati vs. Columbus||10:30 p.m.||FS1 and TSN|
|July 12||Toronto FC vs. D.C. United||9:00 a.m.||ESPN2 and TSN|
|July 12||Sporting KC vs. Minnesota||8:00 p.m.||ESPN and TSN|
|July 12||Real Salt Lake vs. Colorado||10:30 p.m.||ESPN and TSN|
|July 13||LAFC vs. Houston||8:00 p.m.||FS1 and TSN|
|July 13||LA Galaxy vs. Portland||10:30 p.m.||FS1 and TSN|
The full tournament schedule, complete with TV details, can be found here.
The 25 teams - initially 26 were involved, but we'll get to that - have been divided into six groups, and each squad will play three games.
The top three teams from Group A - which features six sides - will advance directly to the knockout stage. The top two teams from the remaining groups will also move on. The three best runners-up will then fill out the round of 16 field.
From there, a standard, single-elimination knockout format begins on July 25, with the final currently scheduled for Aug. 11.
The regular season was halted exactly four months ago on March 8 after each team had played just two games of the 2020 campaign.
To make up for lost time, tournament group-stage matches will count toward the regular-season standings, though that won't be the case for knockout-stage contests. The tournament winner will be granted a CONCACAF Champions League berth, and bonus money is also at stake.
Though a firm plan has yet to be announced, MLS remains intent on continuing the season at home venues after the conclusion of this Orlando event. That includes the playoffs and the MLS Cup final.
Unsurprisingly, considering the surging coronavirus figures in Florida, the tournament has already experienced several setbacks. FC Dallas were removed from the competition after 11 club members - including 10 players - tested positive for COVID-19 upon their arrival at the complex.
Nashville SC's opening match was postponed when five of their players tested positive, too, while Toronto FC's first game was pushed back as well after someone within the club displayed COVID-19 symptoms, delaying the Canadian club's trip south of the border.
Players were given the option to opt out of the tournament, too. Reigning league MVP Carlos Vela took MLS up on that offer, deciding to remain at home with his pregnant wife and young son instead of traveling to one of the United States' viral hotspots. Five players from the Vancouver Whitecaps, including marquee offseason signing Lucas Cavallini, also opted out.
Commissioner Don Garber, naturally, defended the decision.
"We have 550 players that have already been tested and 13 of them have tested positive," he said before news of Nashville's positive tests. "Right now it's an extremely low percentage. The players that are there are safe, they're comfortable, they're training, they're eating, they're recreating."
Players and staff members, who were tested upon arriving in Orlando, will continue to be screened throughout the tournament.
Anyone sitting on the bench during matches will need to wear a mask, as was the case upon the restart of Europe's major soccer leagues earlier this summer. Jersey swaps will also be forbidden after games to eliminate unnecessary contact.
Though star striker Josef Martinez is still recovering from a torn ACL suffered at the start of the season, Atlanta United still possess the firepower up front to make a serious push for the tournament crown.
The rebuild continues under new coach Wicky. The new-look Fire showed encouraging signs in their first two matches of the season, and with several fresh faces still to debut, they could be the surprise team in Orlando.
Stam will get his first taste of MLS action after being appointed in May, and he takes over a team - which Locadia leads - that showed significantly more attacking intent in its first two matches than the club did last season.
The post-Wayne Rooney era continues for D.C. United. There are new faces up front who will help replace the Englishman, but, crucially, the veteran spine of the team remains intact, particularly in defense.
Los Angeles FC
The absence of Vela looms large, but LAFC are still loaded with talent. Bradley's system should allow the high-flying side to continue playing eye-catching soccer, even without its brightest star.
Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez was held scoreless in his first two matches with the club, so he'll be keen to rectify that. The injury-induced absence of Jonathan dos Santos hurts, but this team should still be entertaining, especially with Pavon on the pitch.
Despite losing its opening two matches, the expansion franchise showed promise before the campaign was abruptly halted. Inter Miami can field a true game-breaker in star designated player Pizarro.
Heath and Co. were dealt a massive blow when stud defender Ike Opara was forced out of the tournament, as he'll stay in Minnesota to rehab an undisclosed injury. The Loons, who scored eight goals in their opening two matches, will need to find the net to make up for Opara's absence at the other end.
The hiring of Arsenal legend Henry instantly made Montreal one of the league's most intriguing teams. The Frenchman's previous foray into management was a struggle, to say the least, so how he adapts to life on the bench in MLS will be fascinating.
Little is expected of the expansion side heading into the tournament. But with Zimmerman - acquired in a huge deal with LAFC - as the backbone of the team, there's a defensive stalwart for Smith to build around.
New England Revolution
New York City FC
Despite early stumbles in their opening two games of the new season, NYCFC remain one of the league's best teams, with Moralez capable of unlocking games on his own. As the team gets comfortable with its new manager's tactics, the results will follow.
New York Red Bulls
A team renowned for relying on youth continued to go all-in on that philosophy throughout the offseason, with several veterans departing the club. Expect some growing pains, but the Red Bulls' young legs should jive well with the high-pressing system Armas wants to play.
Orlando City SC
A first-ever meeting with Florida rivals Inter Miami should make for exciting viewing as the tournament's opening match. We'll quickly know how well Pareja's tactics are taking hold.
Boasting one of the league's most well-rounded squads, the Union may not be an outright favorite heading into the tournament, but this balanced unit will be confident of making a deep run.
Now 34, Valeri may not be an all-conquering force anymore, but the Argentine is still the focal point of Portland's attack. With the Timbers drawn into a difficult group, the veteran will need to conjure up some magic for his team to advance.
Real Salt Lake
Juarez likely spent much of the lockdown trying to create ways to give his attack a boost after RSL struggled to consistently craft chances in their opening two matches of the campaign. We'll soon know what solutions he found.
San Jose Earthquakes
This team is hard to figure out. Much was expected when Almeyda was hired, and though there were positive signs at points in 2019, the Quakes lost their last six games of the season en route to missing the playoffs. They looked erratic to begin the 2020 campaign, too.
The defending champions improved - at least on paper - in the offseason, adding some nice pieces and retaining their star-studded attacking core. Anything other than a deep run from the Sounders would be a surprise.
Sporting Kansas City
After a bitterly disappointing - and, frankly, surprising - 2019 campaign, Sporting Kansas City came out looking to make amends in 2020. With marquee signings Pulido and Gadi Kinda leading the way, they scored seven goals in their first two matches, both resounding wins.
Last season's MLS Cup finalists returned much of the core that came so close to winning another title, and in Pozuelo, TFC boast one of the league's most bedazzling players. Combined with Vanney's tactical flexibility and a fit-again Jozy Altidore, the Canadian side remains a serious threat.
The Whitecaps go into the tournament shorthanded and without five players who opted out of the event, most notably Cavallini. To his credit, Dos Santos is trying to remain upbeat and enthusiastic about his team's chances.