Atlanta United, MLS will head to Orlando

A projected loss of $1 billion in revenue because of COVID-19 was part of the impetus for MLS’ creation of the Orlando tournament that will restart the season at a to-be-announced date in July.

The Major League Soccer Players Association and the league reached agreements Wednesday to ratify the collective bargaining agreement and resume a season that was suspended after only two rounds March 12.

Speaking to reporters on a Zoom call Wednesday, MLS Commissioner Don Garber said he couldn’t yet share all of the details of the Orlando plan.

“With, the keyword here is the uncertainty as to when we could return, how many games we could have, what we could have deliver to our media partners and to our national and corporate partners, have forced us to come up with a plan that we can ensure at least allows us to get back in front of fans,” he said.

“Unlike other leagues whose fan bases are deeply mature and have been around for generations, our absence created a void in their lives and their love and care for our players and our clubs, but clearly our absence from the sports scene, it was crucial for us to get back.

“It was about ensuring how many games we can play, ensuring that we would at least have a tournament and deliver that to fans and to our partners and to capture some portion off revenue. In essence, plan for what Major League Soccer may look like in 2021 and beyond.”

He said that the final proposal is about half of the size of the original. Reports have all 26 teams playing three group-stage games, with 16 teams advancing to knockout-round games. Teams would spend a maximum of 35 days in Orlando.

At the expense of MLS, players will be tested for COVID-19 before they arrive in Orlando and during their stay.

Unless there are special circumstances, players cannot opt of competing in the tournament. MLS only recently permitted teams to participate in voluntary small-group training sessions of no more than six players on a field. Once large groups are allowed to train in their markets, Deputy Commissioner Mark Abbot said that teams can delay going to Orlando by a week. The protocols for large group training are supposed to be announced Thursday and will include testing.

“We gave done everything to ensure that this plan will address the health and safety of our players,” Garber said in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, White House advisers, as well as medical advisers for the league and the MLSPA.

The league has been working with its broadcast partners for the past 4-6 weeks to ensure the product is compelling. Garber said there will be more cameras used than at a typical Fox or Univision game. Those are three of the league’s partners. The other is ESPN/Disney, whose complex will be used for training and games. He said the league’s supporters will be impressed by the technology and access.

“Enormous expense and a big challenge for our players to be away from home for a maximum of 35 days is not an easy task,” he said.

The potential success or failure of the Orlando tournament also will provide the league a possible road map of what it will do to keep going once the tournament is complete.

Garber said that he doesn’t yet know when teams will be able to play in their home markets and that they won’t unless everyone’s safety is assured.

“I accept, for the most part, those games will be played without fans,” he said.