Major League Soccer said Wednesday that its teams will begin play April 17, two weeks later than previously scheduled.
The delay compensates for time it took to negotiate a labor deal with its players through 2027. The agreement, ratified by players and announced Monday, gives owners long-term cost certainty for two more years and players their full 2021 salary and bonuses.
Holding to a 34-game schedule also allows a league that depends upon on gameday revenue more time for a global pandemic to subside so more fans can attend games.
Some teams allowed limited numbers of fans — no more than about 3,500 — in 2020. Minnesota United did not allow fans at games played at Allianz Field.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber said the disruption caused by coronavirus created $1 billion in losses last season and could approach that again, even though with the new labor deal allows owners to recoup some of their losses over time.
"When you don't have fans for the majority of your season, it's just pure math," Garber said in a video call with media members on Wednesday.
The labor deal, good for the next seven years, will include the same "force majeure" clause — invoked for unforeseeable events such as the pandemic — that MLS exercised in December to reopen negotiations.
"We're ready to get back to work, get fans back in our facilities and get players back on the field with a normalcy and new health and safety protocols," Garber said. "We hope we never have to trigger that force-majeure clause ever again."
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Wednesday announced stadiums in his state that hold at least 10,000 people can operate at 10% capacity with approval from state health officials, starting Feb. 23. Visitors must test negative for the virus within 72 hours of an event. Masking, physical distancing and temperature checks will be required.
"The more optimism and positive news that come out of state houses for our league and the rest of the sports industry is something we're all anxiously awaiting," Garber said.
But Garber also said he doesn't expect big crowds anytime soon.
"I don't have any sense our fans are going to be in our stadiums in large numbers for probably most, if not all, of the season," he said.
A start date for preseason training and details of the regular-season schedule will be announced "hopefully by early March," Garber said.
The league will continue to charter flights for teams until the pandemic subsides. Garber said he "can't imagine a world" where MLS mandates its players get vaccinated.
"We have not put our players or staff in front of anyone who is in need of vaccine," he said.