America’s late-night TV hosts and musicians worldwide have reinvented their performances by playing on from home without a live audience here in the new age of coronavirus.
So, too, will Major League Soccer when it becomes the first major sports league to resume its suspended season July 8 with the start of its “MLS Is Back” tournament in Orlando.
The games, played without spectators, will be televised via new camera and microphone technology to deliver what MLS Commissioner Don Garber called a new kind of “virtual’’ broadcast. It envisions bringing team supporters inside the stadium and onto a big scoreboard via video conferencing that has become king during the pandemic.
The league on Wednesday announced details of the tournament, which ensures at least three games for all 26 of its teams, including Minnesota United. To combat Orlando’s summer heat, the games will start at 9 a.m., 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Central time.
The knockout-style tournament ends with an Aug. 11 final that crowns a champion that will advance to the 2021 Scotiabank CONCACAF Champions League. It also rewards winning players and technical staff a chunk of $1.1 million in prize money.
MLS seeded the top teams into the six groups Wednesday. Five of those top seeds are Orlando City as the host team — even though it finished 11th in the Eastern Conferene in 2019 — and the four teams in the 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs semifinals — Atlanta United and Toronto from the East, and Los Angeles FC and the Seattle Sounders from the West.
The sixth top seed is Real Salt Lake, the next highest team in the 2019 West standings — third with 53 points. Fourth place Minnesota United actually had the same number of points as Real Salt Lake, but lost the chance to be a top seed on the first tiebreaker, most wins 16 to 15.
The MLS will seed the rest of the teams and put them in groups Thursday afternoon for a tournament three months in the planning, and one that will isolate nearly 2,000 people for a month or more at a Disney resort.
“Delighted to get back,” Minnesota United coach Adrian Heath said Wednesday by video call. “It’s something we’ve all been wishing and hoping for. We should know tomorrow who’s in our group. It will be interesting to see how we go.”
All 26 teams will compete in a three-game group round, with the results applying to the 2020 regular-season standings. Sixteen teams will advance to a knockout round.
When it’s over, the league plans to continue its regular season with games in markets from late August or early September into December or beyond before it awards the MLS Cup to a champion.
The Orlando tournament, agreed to in a new labor agreement reached last week, gets the league playing and generating revenue with made-for-TV games at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World. Disney owns ESPN, which is one of the league’s major media partners.
Garber said Wednesday that the television production behind the games will deliver more camera and microphone technology than is typical for an ESPN, Fox or Univision game.
“You can be sure we’ll have an environment that brings our fans and our supporters close to these matches,” Garber said. “So many of us [pro sports leagues] are going to have to deal with a unique way of expressing our brand and our product without fans in the stadium.”
Germany’s Bundesliga resumed play last month by pumping recorded crowd noise into games played in cavernous empty stadiums. Minnesota United defender Chase Gasper has watched many of those games that he said have provided a sense of “normalcy” in such abnormal times.
“We’ve noticed the audio they play throughout the stadium that impersonates fans and crowds,” Gasper said. “For TV, it seems like a good idea. It’s kind of funny to listen to. When you’re on the field and your adrenaline is pumping, I don’t think you’re going to notice.”
Heath is more interested in numbers crunched from those Bundesliga games that indicate away teams have fared better and been called for fewer fouls while ball possession has evened.
“Looking at the stats early on, that has been the interesting thing for me,” Heath said.
Heath said he hopes his team will begin full team training in Blaine next week and can delay traveling to Orlando until July to shorten a potentially long stay there. Teams will start arriving June 24 and must be there a week before their first game. Heath said that will give his team time to scrimmage against MLS competition during that week.
Garber called himself “very optimistic” that MLS teams will be back in their own stadiums — including the Loons at Allianz Field — by fall and perhaps into winter. It’s still likely to be without fans, but he said he can’t set a date.
Loons Chief Soccer Officer Manny Lagos said the tournament “allows us to think about what comes after, which I think something will. I do believe we’ll be in a good spot if things continue and people feel safe. Ultimately, I want soccer to be back in the Twin Cities for this community.”