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Uncertainties abound for MLS at its return to play tournament

New York City FC goalkeeper Sean Johnson arrives

New York City FC goalkeeper Sean Johnson arrives in Orlando for the MLS is Back Tournament on Thursday, July 2, 2020. Credit: Major League Soccer / Katie Cahalin

Florida’s coronavirus numbers still are going up, yet Major League’s Soccer’s return to play still is going down.

Planned when the Sunshine State seemed like a safe haven from the pandemic, the MLS is Back Tournament is expected to commence Wednesday at 8 p.m., remaining intact despite a growing crisis around the state as well as multiple positive tests among players and staff inside the bubble environment created at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney World.

“Of course it’s a concern when you see what’s happening,” said New York City FC coach Ronny Deila last week. “At the same time, you have to trust the people who are responsible for the tournament.”

MLS was just two weeks into its milestone 25th season when the pandemic shut down the sporting world in March. On June 10, the tournament was announced as the first step toward a full resumption of the season.

The World Cup-style competition will divide the league’s 26 clubs into five groups of four teams plus one six-team group. Each club will play three games in group play with the top half of each group, plus the three remaining teams with the most points, advancing into a 16-team knockout bracket.

All group matches will count toward the 2020 regular season standings when play fully restarts. In addition to the $1.1 million prize pool at stake, the winners will earn a CONCACAF Champions League spot in 2021.

All of that sounded great when the players agreed to the tournament, but as the host site emerged as a COVID-19 hotspot in the weeks since, the format put teams in a bit of a predicament — leave their lives behind for up to a month and take the risk that comes along with travel and competition, or take three forfeits and drop nine points in the standings.

“Unfortunately, we do have to separate COVID and the tournament and our games, but we also know that all the other teams are in the exact same situation as we are,” said NYCFC midfielder Maxi Moralez. “We need to be mentally strong and go in with the mindset that everything will be okay and good and the protocols that the league has put in place are the right ones.”

Moralez was vocally against the club’s participation in the tournament, but joined his teammates on a charter flight Thursday. The previous day, FC Dallas announced six players had tested positive for the coronavirus since the club’s Tuesday arrival in Florida. By Saturday, the number of FCD players testing postive reached 10, according to a report by Dallas soccer blog 3rd Degree. Columbus Crew SC also confirmed a positive result for a player in Orlando, while a report by The Athletic said a Minnesota United player had tested positive on site Friday. Some clubs were forced to delay travel because of positive or inconclusive results, including the Red Bulls, who twice cancelled flights before finally arriving Saturday.

FC Dallas was scheduled to open play against the Vancouver Whitecaps on July 9, but that match has been pushed to later in the group stage. Vancouver has yet to arrive in Orlando after canceling travel following two inconclusive test results, which since have been confirmed negative. The Whitecaps now will travel on July 6, while all FC Dallas players remain isolated in hotel rooms. 

How teams are able to maintain composure and perform with COVID-19 concerns in the backs of their minds, all while returning from a long break in action, remains to be seen.

“I don’t focus on that at all, I’m focused on going down there and finally getting to play some football games again,” Deila said. “Because I think we have used this period really good and we’re just looking forward to get going.”

Deila was just getting going with his first MLS season after taking over late in the offseason. He helped NYCFC advance in its first CONCACAF Champions League appearance, but oversaw two defeats to start the league campaign.

The Norwegian coach said he used his quarantine to watch the dozens of matches NYCFC played last year to better understand how his team plays. The time also allowed players to know Deila and each other a little better, with veterans such as goalkeeper Sean Johnson working with Deila to help ease the burden during lockdown.

“I think he was fantastic and very understanding. It’s something different that we all had to experience and adjust to from the start of the break,” Johnson said. “No one knew when it was going to end, now here we are three months down the road. We all got to know each other a lot better, we all got to appreciate each other a little bit more in terms of building relationships through team bonding and discussions. Everybody had to communicate with each other verbally, which was important to bring the group closer together.”

Drawn into the six-team Group A, City kicks off with what’s expected to be its toughest test of the stage against Philadelphia on Thursday at 9 a.m. Although NYCFC beat the Union in both MLS matches between them last season, the Union were the only other club in the group to join NYCFC in the MLS Cup playoffs.

“Philly is tough, it’s always a battle against them,” said captain Alex Ring. “When you play a tournament, it’s different from the league. The first game is really important because you don’t want to be behind the eight ball so to say, trying to chase after with all that pressure.”

As unique a circumstance as the MLS is Back Tournament appears to be, NYCFC’s players have the same message for this competition as they did entering the Champions League or MLS season — it’s time to win something.

“I’m playing because I want to win. I’m not going to go there just for the pools and whatever they offer,” Ring said. “Our start wasn’t the best result-wise and I think we have something to prove as New York City FC.”

“We need to be mentally strong and go in with the mindset that everything will be okay and good and the protocols that the league has put in place are the right ones.”

NYCFC midfielder Maxi Moralez

New York Sports