With Major League Soccer allowing players to train by themselves outdoors at team facilities starting May 6, the wheels are officially in motion for the top flight in the U.S. and Canada to resume playing after the coronavirus pause, although no firm date has been set. The league suspended the 2020 regular season after just two rounds of games on March 12. The initial pause was set for 30 days, but that has since been extended twice, with June 8 the most recent date put out by the league as the earliest games would resume.
There are multiple scenarios to get players back in training and eventually resume competitive matches, but how will things look when the league returns? Can players really train and play safely? Will matches go ahead with no fans in the stands or with limited crowds that allow social distancing? What about testing protocols and dealing with the possibility of anyone involved in matches -- players, coaches, referees, media -- testing positive for COVID-19?
ESPN has spoken to multiple sources with knowledge of the situation to get a sense of a process that has been characterized as constantly changing.
What do we know?
On May 6, teams were allowed to bring players back to facilities to train on their own outdoors with strict protocols in place regarding coming and going from pitches, a ban on using any indoor facilities and no interaction allowed between players as they worked back to fitness by themselves. MLS understood that with 700 players, individuals were already training on their own in order to stay fit, and felt that it would be safer to allow athletes to do so at team facilities.
Each of the 26 MLS clubs will have to lay out their respective plans for how they expect to do this, which will then be reviewed and approved by the club's medical staff and local officials before being submitted to Major League Soccer for final approval. So far, Atlanta United, Inter Miami, Houston Dynamo, Orlando City and Sporting Kansas City have held voluntary individual training sessions at their facilities, with the remainder of the league expected to follow suit in the coming days and weeks as state guidelines allow.
After solo training, what are the next steps?
The solo training has been described as stage one of the process, with stage two seeing players able to train in small groups and stage three allowing teams to practice together in full. Dates for those latter two steps have not been set yet, and when they are taken it will be based on review and approval by the league, in accordance with state and federal guidelines.
The league is holding regular meetings with several stakeholders to determine a path toward returning to play. There are at least 20 weekly video conference calls to discuss these plans, including with ownership groups, soccer operations, business officers, legal and ticketing.
What about testing?
The league's mantra here is that the No. 1 priority is the health and safety of players, coaches, staff and fans. To that end, MLS has multiple infectious disease experts on retainer in addition to its own chief medical officer to help plan how testing procedures will be handled on practice days, matchdays and those in between. All players are expected to be tested on matchdays before games, but the frequency of testing outside of that is one factor that still needs to be addressed.
Sources say multiple options are being weighed for the likely event that people involved with matches -- players, coaches, referees -- will test positive. As yet, the answers aren't in place, but it's a crucial part of the planning.
When will competitive matches resume and what will they look like?
With players only just returning to individual training, the June 8 date for resumption of games -- proposed on April 17 -- is probably ambitious given that teams will need to be training together and take part in some form of scrimmages or friendlies before competitive games start. At the moment, sources say it's premature to set a target date for a return to action.
When games do resume, the league is evaluating multiple potential scenarios. At this point, the most likely format is a tournament of some form held at a single location or multiple regional locations over the course of about 45 days. A handful of potential host cities are being evaluated, including Orlando, Dallas, Los Angeles and Kansas City, among others.
Sources have stressed that these will be "meaningful" games and not exhibitions. It has not been decided whether the tournament would be standalone, with potential prizes like a CONCACAF Champions League place for the winner, or if it would be made up of regular-season games played in those neutral venues during the 45-day period. Over the course of the competition, players would be kept isolated -- whether that's in a single location or one of the handful of regional host cities -- with teammates and club staff and adhere to the testing protocols laid out by the league before, during and after each game.
After the tournament phase of MLS' plans to return, the likely next step would be to allow teams to return to local markets in order to play out a more traditional regular season, playoffs and MLS Cup. There are so many variables regarding this step right now -- in particular the unpredictability of the impact of the coronavirus from state to state in the U.S. and Canada -- that it's hard to say exactly what these games will look like. What is planned for, although not yet finalized, is charter travel for teams traveling from market to market.
Having already lost two months from its regular-season calendar, the league has publicly stated that it could stage MLS Cup in December or later. Sources say that could mean a final played in January or February 2021, and with weather making outdoor games unfeasible in MLS' northernmost markets, the league could turn to neutral venues to see out a schedule that stretches into the coldest months of next year.
Can fans attend games when teams return to their markets?
Initially, much like other sports leagues across the continent, the first games back in stadiums likely won't have fans, with players, coaches, staff, officials, media and personnel are needed to stage the games the only ones on site. MLS has been in contact with the Bundesliga, the Premier League and other North American sports leagues to share information and possible models for their proposed returns to action.
If and when fans are allowed to return to games, it will likely only be at partial capacity so that proper social distancing guidelines can be adhered to. It is possible that the season will be played entirely without fans, which would represent a blow to many teams that rely heavily on gameday revenue to make money. However, clubs would much prefer finding ways to get fans safely in stadiums later in the year.