Commentary

Soccer leagues have options ... they might include turning 2019-20 seasons into 2019-21 seasons

Depending on who you ask, we’ll all be playing soccer in empty stadiums in a couple of weeks or won’t be playing sports again until a vaccine is available in the distant future.

(Researchers are actually making progress on treatment and testing, but some people want to prepare themselves for the worst, as is their right.)

In general, the better a country has dealt with COVID-19, the more realistic the return to sports may be. South Korea is already playing preseason baseball. The German Bundesliga, as of Thursday, wants to resume May 9 if it gets governmental approval. Other European leagues aren’t quite there.

If you’re doing contingency plans for one of those leagues, you need to have one plan for a best-case scenario, one for something a little worse, and one for a worst-case scenario.

But suppose what we might think of as the worst-case scenario isn’t really that bad?

Before the world stopped, Premier League champion-in-waiting Liverpool was scheduled to play March 16 against Everton at Goodison Park.

Suppose Liverpool’s next Premier League game is at Goodison Park on March 16, 2021?

Yes, on first glance, that seems horrible. It sounds like a nightmare scenario straight from the social media contest to see who can paint the bleakest picture of our future.

But consider what can be gained by putting things off another 10½ months.

First, the likelihood that supporters can go to those games would be much higher than it will be in the next few months. Antiviral drugs, plasma treatments, enhanced testing and tracking are likely to be available. In the latest estimates, we might even have a vaccine by then.

Second, setting a far-off date for league play doesn’t rule out the prospect of playing games between now and then.

If teams can play before next March, great. Play friendlies. Play a mini-tournament. Maybe England can have a full slate of games on Boxing Day.

The advantage to such scheduling is that it’s flexible. We may have multiple waves of social distancing. If a game is scheduled for a date in October, there’s a chance it might not be able to be played. If that game is part of a league schedule, such disturbances would force schedule-makers to juggle things and perhaps force teams into unhealthy fixture congestion. If it’s a friendly, nothing has been lost except that one game.

What if everyone gets the all-clear in October? Fine -- organize a World Cup-style League Cup with a group stage and playoffs. Finish on Boxing Day. Then take a break, come back in mid-February for some “preseason” friendlies and resume the 2019-20-21 season in March.

This system would certainly be better than what happened in the Netherlands. All the games that have been played to this point, as it turns out, didn’t matter. No one wins.

That decision is a failure of the Dutch federation (KNVB) to consider all options. They may not have been able to resume in a few weeks, as the Bundesliga and Premier League are hoping to do. But they could have considered what French clubs have suggested, taking a cue from Ian Plenderleith’s Soccer America’s column: Switch to a calendar-year schedule, at least through the 2022 World Cup.

These issues extend to UEFA and its organization of its club competitions, the UEFA Champions League and Europa League. It's aiming to finish the 2019-20 European competitions in August and get all leagues to designate their final 2019-20 league placements by then to fill the slots for the 2020-21 European competitions.

So much money is at stake leagues and clubs will go a long way to make sure the Champions League and Europa League are continue in the summer and fall -- including assigning placements without finishing the season, like the KNVB just did -- but flexibility will be needed from UEFA as well.

Soccer leagues have options. It’s not a question of finishing by July 31 or bust. The world needs creativity right now -- in science, in politics, and in soccer.
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