Major League Soccer will return from its coronavirus shutdown with a 26-team tournament behind closed doors starting July 8 at Disney World in Florida, the league announced Wednesday.
The “MLS Is Back” tournament, which runs until August 11, will feature group-stage matches that will count in the league’s regular season, which was halted after two weeks due to the deadly virus outbreak in March.
The event will be staged at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex at Walt Disney World in Orlando and feature extensive medical protocols for players, including COVID-19 tests on the day before each match.
“We are pleased to team up with Disney to relaunch the 2020 MLS season and get back to playing soccer,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said.
“The opportunity to have all 26 clubs in a controlled environment enables us to help protect the health of our players, coaches and staff as we return to play.”
Teams will begin arriving in Orlando on June 24 for pre-season workouts, with clubs able to arrive no later than seven days before their opening match.
The World Cup-style format will see a continuous schedule of matches almost every day with games kicking off at 9:00 am, 8:00 pm and 10:30 pm.
The winner will claim the berth in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League typically reserved for the regular-season conference leader with the second-most points.
Five substitutes will be allowed per match, following in the footsteps of the German Bundesliga.
The league, which will move newcomer Nashville to the Eastern Conference for scheduling purposes, will be divided into six groups on Thursday.
The East will have one six-team group, with host Orlando City as its top seed, and two four-team groups, while the West has three four-team groups.
Other top seeds will be Atlanta United, Los Angeles FC, Toronto FC and Seattle Sounders plus Real Salt Lake.
The two top clubs from each group plus the four-best third-place sides advance to the round of 16. The championship match is set for August 11.
Drawn knockout matches will go directly to a penalty shootout.
– Regular testing –
Each delegation member must pass two COVID-19 tests before departing for Orlando and another upon arrival.
For the first two weeks, people will be tested every other day. Regular tests will follow after that, including the day before each match.
On-field safety measures include asking all to “exercise care when spitting or clearing their nose”, with masks and social distancing required on the benches.
Those developing coronavirus symptoms must contact club medical staff, while anyone testing positive will be isolated. Those in high-risk groups need medical approval to participate.
Garber also said MLS plans to address racial inequality issues in the wake of the recent death of George Floyd and the protests that have followed.
“Together with our owners, players and staff, the league and its clubs are deeply committed to creating meaningful and impactful programs to address these issues that have plagued our society for far too long,” he said.