The coronavirus pandemic turned the world on its head and brought professional sports to a screeching halt in mid-March. In the United States, leagues like the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League were abruptly paused near the completion of their regular seasons. For Major League Baseball, it meant indefinitely delaying the start of their 2020 season.
Major League Soccer found itself in a somewhat unique position. Instead of being weeks away from the playoffs, like the NBA, or yet to start their season, like the MLB, MLS has just begun its 2020 season. The 26 teams had each played just two of their scheduled 34 games before being forced to put a stop on their seasons.
With so little of the regular season completed, MLS doesn’t have to face the same challenges that the NBA and NHL are working through. This allowed the United States’ top soccer league to take an interesting approach to resuming their season: A World Cup-style tournament featuring all 26 clubs.
Officially dubbed the ‘MLS is Back Tournament’, the 26 teams will gather at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex outside Orlando, Florida. Very similar to the NBA’s approach, having a single, neutral location to resume play will minimize issues relating to travel and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Teams may begin arriving at ESPN’s complex as early as June 24th, but also must arrive at least seven days ahead of their first scheduled match. Play is set to begin on July 8th with a group stage, before advancing to a knockout stage featuring 16 of the league’s 26 teams. The tournament will culminate with a final to be played on August 11th.
Dividing 26 teams into six even groups presents a mathematical impossibility, further complicated by each conference having 13 representatives; an uneven number of teams. Teams are set to be grouped by conference, with the exception of Nashville SC, which moves from the Western to the Eastern conference. This still doesn’t solve the even groups issue, so the conferences will be further split as follows:
- Eastern Conference (14 teams): one group of six teams, two groups of four teams
- Western Conference (12 teams): three groups of four teams
As the de facto hosts, Orlando City SC will be awarded the top seed in Group A. Rather than base further seeding off the extremely limited 2020 regular season, the remaining seeds will be given to the four semifinalists from the 2019 MLS Cup playoffs (Atlanta United, LAFC, Seattle Sounders FC, Toronto FC), as well as the next-highest point earner in the Western Conference (Real Salt Lake). The remaining draw will be held on June 11th at 3:30 p.m. ET.
Besides the obvious bragging rights, the winner will earn an automatic berth in the CONCAF Champions League. Typically, this berth is given “to the MLS regular-season points leader in the conference opposite of the 2020 Supporters’ Shield winner”.
The ‘MLS is Back Tournament’ will not replace the 2020 MLS regular season or the MLS Sup, but rather supplement it. All group stage games will count towards the regular season standings. Given the exception of Nashville SC, all teams will be playing intra-conference matchups, adding to their significance in the standings when the traditional regular season resumes.
As for when regular matches will resume, MLS hasn’t announced a formal plan. The league plans to play a revised schedule with teams in their home stadiums. Whether or not fans will be allowed in attendance, and the ultimate timing of these dates will largely rely on state and federal guidelines as the current world health crisis continues to unfold.
With the MLB struggling to find a suitable way to start their season, and with the NBA and NHL still weeks away from modified returns, the ‘MLS is Back Tournament’ will provide much needed relief for deprived sports fans. This could be beneficial to the MLS in terms of viewership and awareness. Currently, the MLS is not considered to be among the “big four” sports leagues in the United States, relegated to a tier below the likes of the NFL, MLB, NHL, and NBA. While there is support to add the MLS as part of a “big five”, the MLS is not at the same level of viewership as the four leagues that they trail.
However, that could change for the better given the tournament’s unique circumstances and timing. While NASCAR and the WWE will have already made returns, the ‘MLS is Back Tournament’ will provide the return of major league televised sports in the United States.
While soccer continues to grow as a sport in the United States, American viewers are usually eager to tune into men’s or women’s World Cup play in the summer months. The 2014 World Cup in Rio de Janeiro produced a record 291.6 million viewers across the length of the tournament. The final, between Germany and Argentinian, garnered 26.5 million viewers and a 9.7 rating. Approximately 14.3 million viewers in the United States witnessed the Women’s National Team win their second straight World Cup in 2019.
Soccer can do well on television in the United States, given the stakes are high. With few alternatives for professional sports to watch, many viewers may very well be tuning into their first MLS match. Whether it be out of boredom, curiosity, or genuine interest, bringing new eyes to the league leads to more exposure.
Furthermore, the World Cup-style tournament format, featuring a group stage followed by a knockout round, will be familiar to American viewers. With a similar timing as well, taking place in the summer months, this familiarity could even lead to some comfort for depraved sports fans.
The ‘MLS is Back Tournament’ handles the league’s hiatus well, implementing a meaningful in-season tournament while also looking forward to a return to normalcy in 2020. As one of the first sports leagues to return to televisions, the MLS will attract diverse interest and new viewers, which can only bode well for the country’s “fifth league”.