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The “MLS is Back Tournament” will feature all 26 of the league’s clubs housed at Walt Disney World’s ESPN Wide World of Sports complex, with up to three matches per day played without fans in attendance because of the ongoing heath crisis that shut down most global sports leagues in mid-March.
Celebrating its 25th season this year, MLS would become the highest-profile North American circuit to return to action barring any change in its timeline. The NBA this week revealed its plans to come back on July 31, also in Orlando. The NHL is targeting late summer, too. The National Women’s Soccer League will be the first United States-based league to restart when its own tournament kicks off in Utah later this month.
Each MLS team will play at least three group stage matches. First round contests would be played at 9 a.m., 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. ET during the first 16 days of the competition. There’s a prize pool of $1.1 million, and winner of the tournament will claim a 2021 CONCACAF Champions League berth.
Group stage games will count in the standings of the regular season, which the league said would resume in home markets following the event in Florida. Multiple sources told Yahoo Sports that the league is eyeing an abbreviated 18-match schedule for its teams, down from the usual 34.
Clubs will arrive in Orlando for preseason training beginning June 24. Including players and team staff, MLS will send more than 2,000 employees to the event. The league’s press release said that testing for COVID-19 — the illness caused by the coronavirus — would be robust. “The MLS medical department and the league’s infectious disease experts have developed a comprehensive COVID-19 testing plan which will be implemented for the entire MLS is Back Tournament,” it read.
“Anything we do has to ensure that we’re going to protect the health and safety of our players and staff,” said MLS commissioner Don Garber. “There will be testing for those who are traveling down to Orlando before they leave and when they arrive. There will be testing regularly during the competition [and] in the training that will precede it.”
The MLS Players Association signed off on the plan last week as part of a new collective bargaining agreement that will run through 2025. The full schedule for the tournament will be announced following a draw that will take place on Thursday.
The 26 teams will be spread across six groups. As hosts, Orlando City gets the top seed in Group A. The four semifinalists from the 2019 MLS Cup playoffs — Atlanta United, Los Angeles FC, Seattle Sounders, Toronto FC — plus Real Salt Lake, which had the highest points total in the Western Conference after Supporters’ Shield winners LAFC last season, will receive the five remaining seeds.
To ensure both sides of the bracket feature 13 teams, expansion side Nashville SC will temporarily move from the West to the East during the tournament.
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