MLS Tournament, ball, 6.10.20

At the end of June, the National Women’s Soccer League will be back. Come the beginning of July, the United States’ other first-division league will be back, too. Portland soccer fans: Between MLS and the NWSL, you’re going to get both of your professional teams back on the field. And soon.

In early June, Major League Soccer brought the last month of rumors to fruition, announcing a competition to take place in Orlando, Florida, from July 8 through August 11. The name says it all – the MLS is Back Tournament – and while it won’t replace the inventory from the games we missed this spring, it will give soccer addicts 54 games in 35 days. You’re more than Bundesliga fans, now.

What, exactly, that entails ... well, let’s dive in. Here is your MLS is Back 101, something we hope to update up to and throughout the competition:

What is “MLS is Back?”
The MLS is Back Tournament is how we’re getting league games this summer, and while it sounds more and more like those won’t be the only games we get this year, let’s live in our now. The too long, didn’t read definition: 26 teams; one month; World-Cup style; winner wins a spot in the next CONCACAF Champions League (even if a Canadian team wins it).

If you don’t know what CONCACAF Champions League is, don’t sweat it. It’s a tournament of the best club teams from North and Central America as well as the Caribbean, though as it concerns the action in Orlando, it doesn’t matter that much. You don’t need to know anything about “CCL” to enjoy MLS is Back.

On July 8, MLS’ 26 teams will begin play at Disney World, where a three-game group stage will feed into a 16-team knockout round. Games will take place on the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, with squads arriving on site over the two preceding weeks.The final will take place on August 11.

Beyond that, MLS’ intentions are clear. Per today’s statement: “MLS plans to continue its regular season with a revised schedule in home markets” at some point after teams return from Orlando.

Wait: During COVID-19?
Yes, which is obviously a challenge. Here’s what the league is doing:

Starting in early June, all players and the personnel with access to them began a series of COVID-19 testing. Those tests complemented the teams’ ongoing social distancing measures, measures which will continue in Orlando. Everybody that’s a part of MLS’ traveling party will have their symptoms regularly monitored, with frequent temperature checks a fact of life in the MLS is Back experience.

There are obvious questions, all of which should be asked, right now. Some healthy skepticism of MLS, the NWSL, the National Basketball Association’s efforts is important. There are some serious, big-picture issues involved, none which should be ignored. Clearly, though, there are two goals: (a.) create the safest environment possible while, (b.) getting back to the field. There will be no fans at games. Clubs’ traveling parties will be smaller than usual.

Between testing and other precautions, Orlando could be a safer place than most. But there should still be an abundance of caution. There should be plans that go beyond “safer than most.”

So who will the Timbers play in Orlando?
June 11's draw saw the Timbers grouped with Los Angeles FC, the LA Galaxy and Houston Dynamo, and while those games' dates and times are still to be determined, we know the group stage starts on July 8 and ends before July 25 - the beginning of the knockout round.

And how do we watch the games?
That’s part of the “other important details” which, according to the league’s release, “will be provided soon.” For now, here’s what we know.

Over the group stage, games will take place daily, always at three kickoff times: 6 a.m., 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time. Yes, some games will start before you wake up, and yes, another will kickoff when the East Coast needs to sleep. Small reminder: These games will take place during Central Florida’s summer. It might be slightly humid.

The league did allude to its national television partners, though, so we can assume the broadcast side will feature ESPN and possibly FOX. Beyond that, we’re in wait-and-see mode.

About the format, how do the group stages and knockout round work?
On June 11, MLS’s 26 teams will be drawn into six groups. The ones in the Eastern Conference plus Nashville FC (yes, Nashville was in the West; yes, it was weird), will go into two groups of four, one group of six. The West’s 12 remaining teams will go into three, four-team groups.

In the interest of balancing groups, MLS identified six “seeded” teams that will be divided among the groups: Orlando City SC, Atlanta United FC, LAFC, the Seattle Sounders, Toronto FC and Real Salt Lake. That’s the tournament’s host, 2019’s four semifinalists, and the team with the next-highest point total from West last season. The rest of the clubs were drawn randomly into their conference’s groups, with the East’s surely hoping to get grouped with Orlando …

Actually, that feels like an especially cheap line, right now. Sure, Orlando doesn’t have Atlanta or Toronto’s pedigree, but when else besides now will history be less relevant? It will be four months between games when teams kick off MLS is Back. Who knows how well anybody’s managed the time off? Perhaps Orlando has mastered training at home and has a head start on the rest of the world. We really don’t know.

What we do know: Each team plays three games within their group, with that group’s top two finishers going into the knockout round. The four teams remaining teams with the tournament’s best records will also advance to the knockout round, where a bracket will set up a series of one-and-dones through the August 11 final.

Do these games count?
Yeah. I mean, they all count, but count for what, exactly? That needs a breakdown.

All group-stage games count as it concerns qualifying for the knockout round, but they’ll also count in the regular season standings. If the league adds more games later in the year, the standings will already include early March’s pre-COVID-break games (one win, one loss for the Timbers) as well as each club’s group-stage matches from Orlando.

The knockout stage, however, won’t count in the standings. In that way, Orlando is like its own mini season. The first part counts toward the standings; the second toward something else. In a normal world, that something else is the chance to lift MLS Cup. In this one, it’s a CONCACAF Champions League spot.

What other differences should I know about?
Game day squads, for one. In normal times, that roster would include 18 players. In Orlando, it will be expanded to 23 – the same number countries are allowed to dress at a World Cup.

There’ll be more substitutions, too. Three is the normal. Next month, it will be five (although teams can only stop the clock three times for substitutions, so some of their changes might have to be bundled). Teams are going to be playing a compacted schedule of games. More substitutions mean better management of players’ minutes and, in theory, less chance of injury.

Also, there’s a $1.1 million prize pool. How that’s divided up, MLS wasn’t clear, but there’s a financial incentive to do well, too. Not only could these games impact your playoff and CCL hopes, but they could impact your checkbook.

Who’s the tournament favorite?
Absolutely no clue. Check back after the group stage. Better yet, let’s big picture this one. One month from now, MLS will be back. No doubt, we’ll get wrapped up in winners and losers, favorites and underdogs, highlights and mistakes. But for as long as possible, it makes sense to shelve that talk. We’ve been three months without a domestic game to watch. Let’s take some time to appreciate the return.