Major League Soccer is back and heading to Disney World.
The league officially announced plans on Wednesday for a tournament featuring all 26 teams that will take place from July 8 to Aug. 11.
Similar to a FIFA World Cup format, the tournament will feature a continuous schedule of matches nearly every day, with games beginning at 9 a.m., 8 p.m., and 10:30 p.m. ET to avoid the extreme heat and humidity during the day in Orlando.
Each team will play three group stage matches, with those results counting in the 2020 MLS regular- season standings. After 16 consecutive days of group stage matches, the top two teams from each group, along with the four best third-place finishers, will move on to the knockout stage.
The knockout stage will include a round of 16, quarter-finals, semifinals and the championship match on Aug. 11. Matches tied at the end of regulation in the knockout phase will proceed directly to a penalty kick shootout.
The winner of this tournament will be awarded a spot in the 2021 Concacaf Champions League, significant for Canadian teams who previously could only qualify for that tournament by winning their domestic championship. Should a Canadian team win the Orlando tournament, they will still be required to play in the Canadian Championship. If they win that as well, Concacaf and the Canadian Soccer Association will decide who takes the spot in the following year’s Champions League, likely the losing finalist.
Fitting 26 teams into such a format is complicated, so joining five groups of four will be a sixth group featuring six teams who will only play three opponents. Toronto FC will play in a group of four as one of six seeded teams. The group draw will take place on Thursday.
Getting to this announcement hasn’t been easy for the league. It has been a difficult few weeks negotiating with the Major League Soccer Players Association (MLSPA) and concessions have been made on both sides to get to this stage.
Some believe the hard work is done, but in reality, this is only just beginning. There are still significant challenges to come – on and off the field.
Off the field, the emphasis will surround the health and safety of all involved in the tournament in Orlando. MLS announced an extensive list of protocols on Wednesday.
On the field, the biggest challenge facing all involved will be to remind people this matters. It will be important that the tournament doesn’t feel like a Mickey Mouse event. MLS has used Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in the past for preseason tournaments. With games returning to that venue without supporters, it will be vital for everyone to ensure MLS fans – old and new – understand that these games are important, regardless of how they feel.
We all understand that asking players to step on the pitch and play competitive games for the first time in four months means it will be very difficult to get games to reach high levels of play. But as new fans watch the league for the first time, they will have the chance to be entertained and need to be given the opportunity to learn that the teams are playing for something meaningful.
Games have a chance to get wild. With the entire group stage lasting 16 days, teams will play three matches in around 11 days, which means squads will be stretched and we will likely some unusual scores.
Throughout the process everyone involved will be best served to understand the collective message needs to be that these matches are important. MLS has an opportunity here for their games to be seen by many who haven’t paid much attention in the past. People are craving live sports.
For MLS, this is different. This is a mid-season tournament that gets their league back on the field with hopes of continuing the regular season and playoffs in home markets later in the year.
Using a neutral venue is more in line with the proposed return-to-play scenarios outlined by the NBA and NHL, two leagues that have playoffs and a championship in their plans because their regular seasons were close to finishing when sports were put on hold in March.
MLS was at the beginning of its 25th season, having played two regular-season games. At the end of this tournament standings will reflect five games played per team, and the hope will be to have at least another 16 games played in MLS stadiums before playoffs begin later in the year.
All of that means regular-season games three, four and five, played in a preseason complex to have the opportunity to qualify for a 16-team tournament that gives one Champions League berth and bonus money, could feel irrelevant – regardless of how ecstatic fans are to have sports back – if it is not promoted and covered properly.
The onus will be on everyone to ensure that is the case. With no real clarity on how the league will look when it returns or how many games in total will be played before the playoffs begin, it’s important to note that regular-season games will take on extra meaning when it comes to qualifying for the postseason later in the year.
This is also an exciting new venture that should promote and accelerate the competitiveness of a league that has struggled in the past to make early regular-season games less forgiving. This time, every game truly matters.
Future Champions League berths and money are nice incentives, but people don’t forget the emotions that come with winning. That is the motivation for most players, and once the whistles are blown to start the games, that is what will drive their competitive spirit.
The return of MLS already makes people feel better. How this tournament will feel should go a long way to ensuring how successful the 2020 season can be.