Nine positive tests scuttled Nashville SC’s participation in Orlando before it even began. For FC Dallas, 11 players struck with the novel coronavirus saw the MLS is Back Tournament go out the window without the team ever taking the field. The tournament has largely gone off without a hitch since then, though.
A total of 36 group-stage games and 14 knockout-round contests are in the books. Orlando City SC and the Portland Timbers will meet Tuesday evening to crown a champion, and grant a berth to Concacaf Champions League’s 2021 cycle.
Following that, Nashville SC and FC Dallas will be making up for lost time. The two teams – now largely healthy (and even when the virus was ripping through their locker rooms, not all carriers developed symptoms of the COVID-19 illness it causes) – will begin Major League Soccer’s home-market return with a pair of games in FCD’s stadium in Frisco, Texas Wednesday and Sunday evenings. A third game in the series will be played in Nashville later this Fall.
See the full planned Nashville SC schedule for Phase One.
With a desire to limit time away from controlled environments, extended road trips (and the resultant hotel stays) are out the door. Nashville SC will fly – via charter – into Dallas during the day Wednesday, and out again immediately after the game. The Boys in Gold will repeat that routine Sunday, with two flights bookending their game in a busy day.
“We’re aware of the need to be flexible,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said. “We’re aware that we’re entering a new normal for our industry. That new normal is going to require us – not just now but going forward for quite some time – to have a very strong plan. One that is strongly aligned with local health authorities and with the advisory services of doctors and other that could help ensure that we have a safe environment for everybody involved.”
MLS teams will test every other day, including each matchday eve, to ensure that virus-free rosters are participating in contests. A repeat of the cascade of coronavirus-positive players on the two teams’ rosters will be avoided with more persistent in-market testing.
Without re-litigating past events, Garber’s comments indicate that the league is hopeful there’s been an enlightenment among the FC Dallas and Nashville SC squads that should prevent contraction (and ultimately spread) of the novel coronavirus for a second wave.
“A big part of ensuring that we’re able to keep everybody safe is not just what we do with testing,” he said. “It’s what our players and staff do away from the playing field, away from their facilities: wearing a face covering as they did in Orlando, making sure that they’re incorporating social distancing into their daily lives, and paying careful attention to hygiene.
“Most of all, it’s really important that everyone involved avoid situations where the risk of contracting the disease is heightened, and paying attention to that.”
There will naturally be – as there were for Garber upon announcement of the plan – questions about how a league that suspended play in March when the United States had suffered a total number of deaths in the double-digits now sees fit to resume play when that’s a conservative estimate for an hourly rate in the country.
Adding another potential complication into matters, the league intends to play not in empty stadia, but rather in front of crowds in home markets. Where municipalities will allow it, fans will be at games if the home team presents a plan suitable to the infectious disease specialists of the league and Player’s Association.
“That really is dependent on the individual states,” Garber said. “There are a number of states that are allowing a limited number of fans into sports events today. In those states where we have clubs that have an interest – and not all of our teams do – but those clubs that are interested in welcoming fans where their states allow, we will consider it after they submit a plan. That plan is following the guidelines of our ID doctor and following the protocols that have been established by the states and by the CDC.
“There are leagues, as you know, that are allowing fans, and sports that are allowing fans, so we believe that it is smart for us to consider it, and not take the decision at this point to have a blanket rule to prevent it from happening.”
That may begin as early as Wednesday. No plans have been approved by MLS’s medical experts yet, but FC Dallas has submitted its proposal to the league, and hopes to have approximately 5,000 fans in 20,500-seat Toyota Stadium. Nashville may not just take the field, but do so in front of living, breathing – potentially infecting – Dallas supporters.
While Nashville has not yet submitted its proposal to the league, the club’s front office has reached out to season ticket holders to gauge interest in attending games in-person this Summer.
Another important aspect to the league’s return to play, assuming it continues as planned, involves the postseason. Each squad will have just 23 total games played.
Nashville has already shifted conferences during the year – going from West to East in June – and has three games each scheduled against two different clubs: in addition to a three-game series against FC Dallas, the Boys in Gold will also embark on a home-and-home with Atlanta United, after having opened the season against ATL in February. With 11 of their 23 regular-season games already spoken for (two already played, with two each upcoming against Atlanta, Miami, and Orlando, and three against Dallas), their record may ultimately be skewed by the quality of those four teams, particularly Atlanta and Dallas.
With the understanding that this means the record may not be representative of deserving to make the postseason, the league has expanded the tent, with a playoff tentatively planned to include 18 total teams, an increase from the preseason expectation of 14 sides continuing in the quest for MLS Cup.
“I think it’s pretty clear to all of us now that we’re going to have a season that’s going to have a lot of competitive balance issues,” Garber explained. “It very much was a part of that thinking. The season’s not going to be as balanced as it was in previous years. We thought it was appropriate and fair to even have more teams qualify, because the season is unique. We’re going to have fewer games in the best-case scenario – 23 vs. 34 – so this was part of the thinking there.”
In a year that’s wholly unprecedented in the history of Major League Soccer, Nashville SC will be happy with whatever season structure allows them to get back onto the field. Whether that return should be rushed… is in the eye of the beholder.