Cancellations in the soccer world are happening faster now. First it was the Belgian First Division A, which unlike most of the other sports leagues that ground to a halt last month amid the COVID-19 pandemic, opted to cancel the remainder of the 2019-20 season outright rather than simply postpone it. That was an outlier then. It’s not any more.
In recent days, the Mexican second division called off the rest of its season. All of Scotland’s professional leagues below the Premiership did the same. U.S. Soccer abruptly shuttered its 13-year-old development academy on Wednesday citing financial shortfalls stemming from the health crisis. A day later, Yahoo Sports reported that most of the U.S. youth national teams would also go dark until next year at the earliest.
It seems inevitable now that other teams, leagues and national governing bodies will go the way of annual tournaments like March Madness and Wimbledon and throw in the towel in the coming weeks. It would be a triumph if the English Premier League or other domestic competitions can complete their seasons this summer like they are hoping to. The odds of an international tournament, such as the UEFA Champions League, being able to finish at any point this year appear significantly longer.
There are a few glimmers of hope. The German Bundesliga is still apparently on course, for now, to restart next month and finish its season in June, albeit without fans in attendance. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States’ leading expert on infectious diseases, cautiously outlined a broad-strokes plan Tuesday to reopen sports in the U.S. as early as this summer. But Fauci has also consistently reiterated that the virus — and more specifically the nation’s ability to effectively test for and contain it — will ultimately determine when and how sports can resume.
There are no guarantees that that happens anytime soon.
Even Major League Soccer, which has been among the most publicly optimistic sports organizations when it comes to targeting return dates, seems to be changing its approach lately as reality sets in.
MLS originally announced a 30-day suspension, which was later extended until May 10. This week, MLS released a statement in which it admitted that a mid-May return now “is extremely unlikely based on the guidance of federal and local public health officials.” This time, it did not name a new date to shoot for.
Unlike its European counterparts, or fellow North American sports leagues like the NBA and NHL, the MLS season had just started weeks earlier. That gave the league more flexibility than most. In order to squeeze in a full 34-game season for each of its 26 clubs, MLS remains willing to extend the end of its calendar by more than a month, to the weekend before Christmas.
As time goes on, though, it’s becoming clearer that games will have to be canceled at some point. As a league that generates the majority of its revenue from gate receipts, MLS was also loathe to play matches behind closed doors. This week, MLS commissioner Don Garber told ESPN that when play finally resumes, it will be “likely without fans.”
Multiple sources have told Yahoo Sports that internally, MLS is now targeting a mid-July start and a 24-game slate per team. But making concrete plans in the age of COVID-19 is impossible. Any and all other options are also being considered, a source with knowledge of league executives’ thinking said.
Every league will also have to respect stay-at-home orders from local governments, which differ from place to place. In the Canadian province of Quebec, home of the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens and the MLS’s Impact, public health officials have called for all sports events to be canceled until September.
That’s a moving target, too. Once again, the virus will have the final say.
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