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MLS unveils format, dates of Orlando tournament

Major League Soccer has unveiled the format of its World Cup-style tournament at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida, this summer as the league prepares to make its return from the global Covid-19 pandemic.

MLS has been suspended since mid-March after just two rounds of action in the 2020 season amid the ongoing health crisis.

The officially-named “MLS is Back Tournament” is scheduled to begin on July 8 and finish on August 11. Spectators will not be allowed, while strict health and safety protocols will be enforced for the approximate 2,000 participants.

The tournament will begin with a group-stage format, which will count towards MLS regular season standings, while the winner will earn a spot in the 2021 Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League. Players will also have the opportunity to earn additional bonuses as part of a $1.1m prize pool.

The 26 MLS teams will be drawn into six groups. The 14-team Eastern Conference will have three groups, one of six teams and two with four teams each. The 12-team Western Conference will also be divided into three groups, each consisting of four teams. For the remainder of the 2020 season, Nashville SC will move to the Eastern Conference to provide competitive balance.

On June 11, a live draw will be held to decide the teams who will make up the six groups. It will be streamed live on MLSsoccer.com, as well as the league’s official Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube channels.

Similar to a Fifa World Cup format, the tournament will feature a continuous schedule of matches nearly every day, with games beginning at 9am, 8pm and 10.30pm ET. The vast majority of the matches will be played in the evening.

MLS commissioner Don Garber said the timing of the games was to ensure that players do not take to the field at the hottest times of the day in Orlando.

Teams, who will begin arriving in Orlando as early as June 24 for preseason training, will play a minimum of three games and a maximum of seven. In total, there will be 54 games over a four-week period.

MLS is scheduled to be joined at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex by the National Basketball Association, which is planning to resume its 2019-20 season at the expansive facility on July 31.

The tournament will take place after the MLS Players Association agreed to a return-to-play proposal earlier this month. There appeared a real danger of a lockout during a tense few days, as both sides tried to reach an agreement over a series of economic concessions to mitigate the financial impact of the coronavirus crisis.

Garber has said he expects the league to take a $1bn revenue hit due to the devastating economic impact of the global Covid-19 pandemic, which has enforced the need to stage a summer tournament a neutral single-site location.

“The first focus is to retain some of the revenue that we have planned for in our agreements with sponsors and broadcasters, and being able to have a tournament like this that has as many games as it will have, as many as three a day, will allow us to fulfill some of our obligations to our media partners and sponsors, both nationally and locally, and that’s important,” Garber said. “Our clubs are reliant on game day revenue, and without fans and the normalcy of how we operate our business, it’s incredibly difficult.

“In addition, we have national revenue that has been really challenged without being able to deliver for our national partners. Similarly, our local teams have local sponsors that they sell that are receiving exposure in national broadcasts and other media, and this will allow us to fulfill a portion of that revenue,” Garber said.

All tournament games will be televised in the United States on domestic broadcast partners ESPN, Fox and Univision, while they will also be distributed on a world feed for international partners. A series of initiatives are planned to enhance the broadcast experience, including the deployment of virtual advertising.

“We’ll see new technologies being used from an audio perspective, from a camera perspective, with new angles, with new types of cameras being used,” Garber said. “All sorts of technological innovations that might be technologies that we’ll be able to utilize in the future.”

Upon completion of the “MLS is Back Tournament”, the league plans to continue its regular season with a revised schedule in home markets, followed by the postseason. MLS president Mark Abbott recently said the league is aiming to finish the 2020 season in late December but added that playoff games could be staged in early 2021 if necessary.

“I’m very optimistic, and I expect that we will be back in our stadiums. We just don’t know the exact date,” Garber said. “Obviously this is all unfolding in real time.”

Should one of MLS’s Canadian teams win the tournament, the country will be able to enter two teams into the Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League for the first time.