The 26th season of Major League Soccer will begin April 17, two weeks later than the league initially planned.
During a Wednesday Zoom news conference, MLS Commissioner Don Garber announced the decision to begin the competition April 17, which essentially constituted the second delay to the start of the season amid the ongoing global pandemic and recently-concluded collective bargaining agreement (CBA) negotiated by the league and its players union.
The MLS season typically begins in March, but league officials announced on Jan. 25 the season would begin April 3.
"As you know, the CBA negotiations were extended by a week beyond the original deadline of Jan. 29," Garber said. "So, as a result, we moved back the start of the season by two weeks to allow our players and our clubs time to prepare. We'll announce the date for the opening of training camps really soon and then we'll announce the regular-season schedule in the coming weeks, in the weeks ahead of us. Hopefully by early March."
The league's 25th anniversary season in 2020 was halted in mid-March shortly after the pandemic started to grip North America. The season eventually resumed with a bubble-format tournament in the Orlando region and was reduced to a 23-match regular season.
The April 17 date is later than when the league typically starts its seasons, although that could allow for more fans to be vaccinated and better weather for the MLS clubs in cold-weather climates.
During the 2019 season, FC Cincinnati had completed seven matches through April 13.
The league has yet to announce when preseason training camps will begin but as Garber alluded, it's expected the original date of Feb. 22 will also be pushed back.
Garber indicated he didn't expect to see full stadiums across MLS for most of the 2021 season given the current state of the pandemic in the United States and Canada.
"We just don't know," Garber said. "We are encouraged by the roll-out of the vaccine under the new administration. We obviously have challenges in Canada. ... I was pleased to see fans in the stadium at the Super Bowl in Tampa and I was pleased to see limited numbers of fans in some of our stadiums, including in Columbus for MLS Cup but we have no exposure to what those numbers are going to look like. I can assure you that I don't have any sense that fans are going to be in our stadiums in large numbers for most if not all of the season."
As a result of the expected empty seats in stadiums, Garber said the league is anticipating more financial hardships and close to $1 billion in losses in 2021.
That would follow a 2020 season in which MLS officials claimed losses amounting to about $1 billion.
The CBA, which was ratified by the league's owners and MLS Players Association on Monday and will last through the end of the 2027 season, allows for MLS owners to recover some of their pandemic losses.
In his opening statement during the Wednesday news conference, Garber addressed the conclusion of the CBA talks and thanked the players association for its efforts.
"This agreement is not about the league and the players winning or losing," Garber said. "It's about the game winning. It's about getting our players back on the field. Our fans and our partners and continuing Major League Soccer's 26th season.
"By the end of this CBA in 2027 – and I haven't heard a whole lot about this mentioned in the media – MLS will have been able to experience 32 seasons without a work stoppage. That's unprecedented among the major North American sports leagues. It's a credit to our players. It's a credit to their union and it's a credit to the MLS owners to create the kind of dynamic that can have labor peace for 32 years."
Garber was also asked about the recently revealed format for the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup and the congested schedule of other soccer competitions taking place during the 2021 MLS season.
The Open Cup tradition was interrupted in 2020 when the pandemic forced U.S. Soccer officials to cancel the tournament.
The Open Cup is now set to return in a condensed, five-round format and will feature 24 total clubs and just eight from MLS.
The condensed format was thought to be more appropriate when accounting for likely pandemic challenges, this summer's Concacaf Gold Cup, the June FIFA window for international matches, the Leagues Cup and the latter stages of the Concacaf Champions League.
"There's a lot of work that has to be done on the competition side. We have twice-per-week discussions with our product-strategy committee to go through how we're going to decide on who participates in the U.S. Open Cup, what our competition calendar is going to look like. how do we manage the Leagues Cup," Garber said. "These are all important priorities for our league... I don't have an answer for you but I can assure you that we're going to be able to finalize all those issues very, very soon."
This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: MLS 2021 schedule: Season set to begin April 17