Atlanta United’s season will resume soon from its COVID-19 hiatus.
MLS on Wednesday announced that its tournament featuring 26 teams will begin July 8 near Orlando.
“Project is incredibly ambitious,” Commissioner Don Garber said.
The tournament culminates nearly three months of planning that included the league, infectious-disease experts from MLS, the MLSPA, the federal government and the state of Florida, as well as conversations and coordination with Walt Disney World, which will host the event, and ESPN, Fox Sports and Univision, which will broadcast the 54 games.
Garber said MLS selected Orlando because they wanted a neutral site. Disney World was advantageous because of its best practices as well as that players and personnel from 26 teams and the league can be housed in isolation at one of its resorts. The league is implementing this plan for COVID-19 prevention and precaution at the tournament.
“I don’t know if anyone truly feels comfortable,” Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “If you look at situation you are going into, there are still some questions.”
Because of concern about COVID-19, the stands during the games will be empty, but Garber said new technologies will be used in the broadcasts, including new types of cameras, camera angles, audio and interactive supporter elements.
Atlanta United was 2-0-0 when the league suspended its season March 12 because of concerns about COVID-19.
All 26 teams will compete in the group stages of the tournament. Each team will play a minimum of three games.
Nashville is moving to the Eastern Conference for the remainder of the season. The Eastern Conference, which includes Atlanta United, will be broken into three groups. One will have six teams and the other two will have four. The Western Conference will be broken into three groups of four.
Two teams will play seven games in five weeks.
“It’s quite heavy to go from no games in three months to a month of training and then a lot of games in a short amount of time,” Atlanta United’s Jake Mulraney said. “It’s going to be difficult. Everyone knows it’s going to be difficult. But there’s no point in making excuses. Everyone is in the same boat.”
The top two teams from each group along with the four best third-place finishers will move to the knockout stage, July 25-28. The quarterfinals will be played July 30-Aug. 1, the semifinals Aug. 5-6 and the championship game Aug. 11. The tournament includes a $1.1 million prize pool. The winning team will qualify for the 2021 Champions League.
Atlanta United will be one of the seeded teams because it reached the semifinals in the 2019 playoffs. The tournament draw will take place at 3:30 p.m. Thursday. Other seeded teams are Orlando (because its considered the host), LAFC, Seattle, Toronto and Real Salt Lake. The remaining teams will be drawn into conference-focused groups.
Atlanta United resumed full team training Monday, meaning it will have at least a month of preparation as a group for the tournament. Atlanta United players have said a month of preparation would be needed to regain fitness after not practicing as a team since March 10.
VAR will be used, and teams can have as many as 23 players on the game-day roster. As many as five subs may be used. Game times will be at 9 a.m., 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. in group stages with most of the games being played at night. Garber said the game times were selected to minimize concerns about the weather conditions.
After the tournament, the league plans to continue its season with a yet-to-be-revealed number of games. Playoffs and the MLS Cup are part of the plan.
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