The group stage of the MLS is Back
Tournament is over, and 16 teams have advanced to the knockout stage.
Eight other teams were eliminated this week following the departures of FC Dallas and Nashville SC, both removed from the tournament after Covid-19 outbreaks on their teams.
Both teams are already back in training, preparing for the remainder of the 2020 MLS season. But just what will the season look like?
MLS has made no announcement, but the assumption is league play will resume later in August with 18 games, nine at home and nine on the road.
For all the criticism MLS got for its plan to take 26 teams into a bubble just as the pandemic hit Florida hard, it's worked so far with no positive cases of Covid-19 from a team still participating in the tournament in the last two weeks, which suggests any Covid-19 infections came from home markets or individual bubbles, not community spread within the larger MLS bubble.
The Swan and Dolphin bubble was the product of months of planning by MLS and its staff and experts, but MLS is Back will -- if the final 10 days go off without incident -- have been the easy part. Teams can't keep their players in a bubble forever.
Challenges abound as MLS works to get back to play in home markets -- with or without fans.
The biggest one is simply the unpredictability of the virus itself, how fast and where it will spread. The uncertainty that businesses face in closing and reopening and being forced to close again is something MLS and other sports will face in the months ahead.
Players tested positive in the weeks before they departed for Florida and presumably they'll continue to test positive after their return, but everyone is also all the wiser about how easily the virus spreads.
The biggest challenges MLS will face in salvaging what it can of the 2020 season relate to travel, getting teams in and out markets.
Just as the NBA and NHL will learn the bubble lessons of MLS and the NWSL over the last four weeks, MLS will have to adapt to the experiences of what other leagues are facing trying to operate out of home markets.
Major League Baseball opened on Thursday night without a resolution to its Canada problem. Canada's federal government denied the Toronto Blue Jays’ request to play their home games at Rogers Centre, forcing them to find a venue in the United States -- still undetermined -- to play their home games for the 60-game season.
MLS's Canada problem is multiplied by three. Barring a change of heart from the Canadian government or a rapid improvement in the USA's Covid-19 situation, MLS will have to find homes for its three Canadian teams, Toronto FC, the Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps (all still alive at the MLS is Back Tournament).
The other travel issue is domestic: interstate travel to states that have instituted self-quarantine orders for travelers coming from states where there is a high rate of Covid-19 infections. Right now, that would jeopardize, for example, any games between MLS's two New York area teams and its two Florida teams, Inter Miami and Orlando City. (The New York tri-state area's restrictions currently cover 31 U.S. states.)
Travel restrictions have already impacted the USL Championship, which is in its third week back following a four-month layoff.
New Mexico United -- the 2019 USL Championship attendance leader in its first season -- not only can't play with fans, but it can't play any home games at all. It had to postpone its first home match against the defending champion Real Monarchs and will have to review other matches on a case-by-case basis because, among other reasons, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham ordered all out-of-state visitors to quarantine for 14 days.
What about New Mexico United, which has already played at Colorado Springs and El Paso? Its travel party -- players and staff -- is self-isolating with one exception -- New Mexico United is continuing to train, construing New Mexico quarantine rules allowing for individuals to leave isolation for medical purposes to permit it to train in order for its players to stay fit and avoid serious injuries.
“Otherwise, they’re in their rooms, not getting coffee," United majority owner Peter Trevisani told the Albuquerque Journal. "They’re socially distanced or isolated. And I think it’s working. We’ve been in this bubble for well over a month now, maybe two. We haven’t had a positive test yet.”