Despite all the tumult leading up to the aptly named MLS is Back Tournament, Major League Soccer is set to resume its 2020 season at Walt Disney World in Orlando on Tuesday.
The month-long World Cup-style tournament would be a scintillating prospect if it wasn’t for the negative headlines off the pitch. But there is optimism that everything will settle down once play begins.
Here is everything you need to know about the MLS is Back Tournament.
Positive COVID-19 tests dominate tournament lead-up
Given that the tournament is staged in Florida, where COVID-19 cases continue to rise at a rapid rate, there were inherent risks from the onset.
MLS commissioner Don Garber was confident that the league would manage the proceedings without hitches when the tournament plan was unveiled on June 10.
Then 18 players and six club staff members tested positive for COVID-19 in an approximately three-week span from June 4-28. Most teams hadn’t even arrived in Orlando at that time.
— Jozy Altidore (@JozyAltidore) July 2, 2020
However, FC Dallas has been hit hard by COVID-19 since landing in the bubble, with six players testing positive, leading to the postponement of its opening game against the Vancouver Whitecaps.
As recently as Sunday, Nashville SC had five positive tests since arriving in Orlando, according to Paul Tenorio and Sam Stejskal of The Athletic. Then, the biggest bombshell in the lead-up to the tournament dropped on the eve of kickoff with reigning MVP Carlos Vela opting to skip the competition altogether, per Kevin Baxter of the Los Angeles Times.
Once the tournament kicks off with every team in the same setting, it should be easier to monitor everyone. But the fact this tournament is held in one of the major hotbeds for COVID-19 in the U.S. will leave some players feeling uneasy.
What is the tournament format?
Location aside, the tournament is a fun method to resume the campaign. It’s also a microcosm for MLS’ parity.
All 26 teams were drawn into six groups based on their conference. One group (Group A) contains six teams while the other five will have four clubs each. Every side plays three group-stage matches with all results counting towards the 2020 regular-season standings. All games will kick off at 9 a.m., 8 p.m., and 10:30 p.m. ET.
The top-two teams from each group, the third-place side in Group A and the three best-ranked clubs that finished third (or fourth in Group A) advance to the round of 16. All knockout matches are single elimination and are decided by a penalty shootout if they are tied after 90 minutes.
The champion will qualify for the 2021 Concacaf Champions League, whether it’s a Canadian or American team.
The beauty of the format is any club can muster a solid run of form en route to the final. The first couple rounds of games could be rougher to watch given the long layoff, but once teams are up to speed, it could produce some thrillers.
Why did MLS choose Walt Disney World as its location?
One of the major catalysts for hosting the tournament in Orlando was the access to ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World.
There are 17 soccer fields, plus hotels and other amenities are located nearby, which enabled MLS to create a near-perfect bubble for all personnel.
What happens after the tournament?
MLS is planning on continuing its 2020 season after the tournament’s completion. That sounds like a lofty goal given how COVID-19 has impacted the U.S. in the majority of its states.
Due to these uncertain times, it’s unknown what our world will look like by the tournament final on Aug. 11. But for now, the league is motivated to finish the 2020 regular season and playoffs.