The official Sounders line is they’ll emerge from the coronavirus pandemic stoppage looking to win a tournament in Orlando, snag $1.1 million in prize money and then defend their MLS Cup title in whatever regular season and playoff format gets devised.
Unofficially, though, coach Brian Schmetzer and general manager Garth Lagerwey understand there’s nothing scripted about this unprecedented return during a pandemic still killing roughly 1,000 people daily nationwide. They’ll be making it with players who haven’t seen action in four months, who’ll be largely confined to hotel rooms and take the field after major social unrest throughout the country.
All of which makes focusing entirely on the six-week MLS is Back Tournament, details of which were unveiled Wednesday, seem secondary to getting out of this experiment in one piece.
“I think it’s important to establish here that there’s no such thing as zero risk,’’ Lagerwey said on a conference call with reporters after it was announced the tournament will begin July 8 and conclude Aug. 11 after 54 nationally televised games played in empty stadiums and featuring all 26 teams. “There’s not zero risk in Washington right now. We don’t have zero cases. We’re doing the best we can collectively to try to combat this deadly virus, but there’s not going to be zero risk.’’
But a willingness to take that risk — some players more than others — is why Major League Soccer will be the first North American men’s professional circuit to resume play. Teams will be divided into six groups for the opening round of the tournament at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex at Walt Disney World.
After playing three games apiece over two weeks, 16 teams will advance to a knockout stage — the winner earning a spot in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League. Group-play matches will count toward the regular season — abandoned in March after two games and which the league hopes can resume at a yet-to-be-determined date.
That’s up in-the-air given uncertainty over whether the pandemic will have subsided enough for all states to fully reopen and remain that way. There’s been an uptick in COVID-19 cases in Florida since June 1 as that state reopens on a broad scale, raising even more questions about playing this tournament there.
“Will it be perfect? I think we’re all worried about ‘Will someone get sick down there?'” Lagerwey said. “And it could happen. But we have good protocols in place if that happens, to quarantine that person and to test the people around them and hopefully be able to continue safely with the tournament.”
The safety protocols include sequestering players at the Swan and Dolphin Resort, one team to a floor and each player getting their own room. Players start arriving June 24 — the Sounders will go a week later — and be tested for COVID-19 every other day during the tournament’s first two weeks, then regularly after that including the day before games.
No other hotel guests will be permitted on-site. But despite resort-wide social distancing and enhanced cleaning measures implemented, hotel staff won’t be subjected to the same rigorous testing.
Schmetzer said he still feels safe going.
“Social distancing is very important,” Schmetzer said. “And wearing a mask and all of those sorts of things. According to the plan we’re going to be on a resort that yes, has some workers coming and going. But we’re kind of in a bubble. We’re going to be there in this one central location, all of us are going to practice good social distancing.”
MLS has sponsors setting up a game room with ping-pong and foosball tables and are looking at staging team activities so players won’t be tempted to leave the resort. The Sounders plan a team BBQ and other events to keep players from going stir-crazy.
“Look, I’m not letting my guys go down to the beach for spring break and whatever,” Schmetzer added. “They’re not going there for a vacation. They’re going to be in the hotel, in their own rooms. We’re going to try to win a soccer tournament. There’s a CONCACAF Champions League berth included here. There’s a million bucks in prize money. They’re not going down to Daytona Beach or Miami Beach or anything like that and goofing around.”
Players agreed to the matches in a union vote, though individuals can opt out if granted medical or family exemptions. Los Angeles FC star Carlos Vela, the reigning league MVP, could skip the tournament because his wife is pregnant. Sounders midfielder Jordan Morris, who has diabetes, also could have missed it but has opted to play.
Once the games begin, so too might player displays of solidarity with social-justice protests taking place nationwide. There won’t be any national anthems for players to kneel during — MLS scrapped those given the empty stadiums — but they’ve long sought creative ways, including on-field signage, of making their voices heard.
Schmetzer and Lagerwey fully support of whatever their players do.
“Not to go deep into the woods here — we’re talking about soccer — but the narrative now about Colin Kaepernick and was he right or was he wrong and all that sort of stuff, this is bringing to light the issues that have been kind of under the surface for many, many years,” Schmetzer said of the former NFL quarterback’s anthem kneeling protests. “And I would be supportive if my guys want to do something.”
Note: This story has been corrected to reflect that MLS will be the first North American men’s professional circuit to resume play. The NWSL will be the first North American professional circuit to resume.