Garber, MLS ‘confident’ about health and safety for Orlando restart

Major League Soccer commish Don Garber explains all the finer points of the league's return to play tournament including all 26 teams, in Disney World, and featuring new technological innovations that provide an entertaining on-air product.

A lot can change in 10 days.

June began with MLS threatening to lock out the players if they failed to ratify a new collective bargaining agreement.

Now, the two sides have reached a deal, with a plan to resume the 2020 season at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando.

The aptly named “MLS is Back Tournament” kicks off on July 8 and will incorporate all 26 teams. Clubs will arrive in Florida and begin training as early as June 24.

The group stage for the tournament will be drawn on Thursday, with host club Orlando City in a six-team Group A as a top seed. Last season’s playoff semifinalists in Toronto FC, Atlanta United, Seattle Sounders and Los Angeles FC along with Real Salt Lake – who had the next highest points total in the Western Conference – will also be seeded.

From there, every team will play three group-stage games. Those matches will count towards the regular-season standings. The top two sides in each group will qualify for the round of 16, as do the four best-placed third-place clubs. In the case of a tie after 90 minutes in the knockout stage, the game will forego extra time and advance to a penalty shootout.

The champion receives a berth for the 2021 Concacaf Champions League, even if the winner is Canadian. Normally, Canada’s MLS clubs secure the berth via the Canadian Championship, but that could change under these extraordinary circumstances.

“If TFC, for example, won that [MLS] tournament and then the Canadian Championship, it would be up to Canada Soccer to decide who is going to represent Canada in Concacaf Champions League,” said TFC president Bill Manning. “Maybe it’s the runner-up — I’m purely speculating there. But all three MLS teams will still compete in the Canadian Championship, whether one of us wins [the MLS tournament] or not.”

Upon completion of the tournament, MLS is planning to continue its regular season with a revised schedule in home markets, followed by the playoffs. That will be determined at a later date.

Given the strict medical protocol put in place by the Bundesliga, there are some questions about the safety of club and league personnel in Florida.

Germany’s COVID-19 curve continues to decline, according to data from the New York Times. The United States has experienced a decrease, but Florida’s curve is rising. Orlando isn’t as affected as other cities such as Miami, however.

“We are obviously, like everybody, monitoring what goes on and what has been going on with COVID in every state, including in Florida,” said MLS commissioner Don Garber on a conference call with reporters. “The number of cases in Florida have been less than in many, many other places. We are confident that we’ll be able to manage our tournament.

“There won’t be any guests in the environment where we’re going to be, so it’s something that we are confident we’ll be able to manage.”

MLS unveiled a detailed protocol of their own, with players receiving regular testing before, during and after their arrivals.

Personnel on the bench or touchline must wear facemasks and must practise social distancing as much as possible to limit the spread of COVID-19. Players are prevented from swapping jerseys, kissing the ball and were asked to “exercise care” when spitting or clearing their nose.

“There is no specific protocol for how many positive tests would have us take a step back and think about what happens next,” Garber said. “It’s why we are so focused on regular testing and ensuring that we do what we need to do to keep our players safe and then managing what would happen should a player test positive.

Should a player test positive for COVID-19, he will be immediately removed from the tournament and placed in mandatory quarantine. Afterwards, contact tracing will be conducted on everyone who’s been within 10 feet of the player. Those people will then be tested even more regularly than usual.

There will be hotel employees, drivers and other non-MLS staff around the facilities, but there is no concern with that group.

“Those staff people will not be coming in close contact with our players,” said Garber. “If they were going to be in close contact, then we would manage it through a different protocol.”

That protocol includes social distancing and face masks being worn by everyone involved in the restart project. Sanitization, temperature checks and other measures will also be in place at the hotels.

“There’s a difference between contact and there’s a difference with being in the vicinity,” Garber continued. “I don’t think a bus driver is going to be in close contact with somebody walking on the bus, for example. Somebody cleaning their room is not necessarily going to be in close contact with a player. The players are going to be in close contact with each other, and that’s why they are going to be tested as frequently as they are.”

No plan will satisfy everyone in these strange times. The Bundesliga’s restart was met with skepticism, but there have been no hiccups since games resumed on May 16. MLS is surely hoping that they can be the leading example on this side of the Atlantic.

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