Major League Soccer returned Wednesday after four months away, just like its monthlong “MLS is Back” tournament that kicked off at Walt Disney World Resort says.
It did so with Orlando City’s 2-1 victory over Inter Miami that was as much virtual-reality TV as soccer match, both heartfelt comeback and solemn protest.
MLS’ first game in 122 days made it the biggest men’s pro sports league in the U.S. to play since March 11. Shut down by the coronavirus pandemic since then, the MLS returned in Orlando without supporters on Field 17 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex that’s also housing the NBA’s return.
Field 17 has been converted into a mini stadium that now doubles as television studio.
“It’s true, it’s not the fans there,” said Orlando City star Nani, who scored the winner late in stoppage time. “The stadium is empty, but for the ones who love the football, you don’t pay attention to the fans. Obviously, when they are in the stadium, you can feel the excitement, you can feel the noise. But today we made the noise.”
ESPN used a 160-person crew and 20-plus cameras — double a typical game telecast attached to drones, towering cranes or a dressing-room locker. Microphones were placed everywhere. Some were attached to the goals, six were embedded in the field. They captured players’ chatter and the enhanced sound of cleats striking balls crisply.
Bluescreens erected along sidelines and behind each goal — like your TV news weatherperson might use — cycled corporate-partner ads and video throughout the game on an evening when a Nashville-Chicago nightcap was postponed after five Nashville players tested positive for the virus. On Monday, FC Dallas withdrew from the tournament after 10 of its players tested positive.
A large Adidas logo was superimposed at midfield. It was a reminder that this 54-game production set to end Aug. 11 is a made-for-TV event intended to get both play and revenue flowing again
Germany’s Bundesliga began playing games again in empty stadiums in early May. England’s Premier League followed in June. Both leagues piped crowd noise into games and broadcasts, a laugh track of sorts that MLS and ESPN ignored.
Instead, Wednesday’s telecast opened with a video montage that started with images of past sporting celebrations, both MLS and otherwise. It segued into footage of front-line hospital workers and Black Lives Matter protesters — including Minnesota United’s Ike Opara and his teammates — who called for social justice and police reform.
Then players — each wearing a protective mask with a message — gathered on the field in silence for the same 8 minutes, 46 seconds that a Minneapolis police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck, killing him on Memorial Day. Starters knelt around the midfield circle. More than 170 Black MLS players, including all of Minnesota United’s Black players, lined up around them. Each raised a gloved right fist in the air in protest — as U.S. Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos did on the medal stand at the 1968 Mexico City Games — organized by MLS players’ recently formed “Black Players For Change” organization.
A message on one of the blue boards read: MLS is Black.
“This is how it was, what it did, what it meant, how it felt,” a narrator spoke over the video-montage celebrations. “It can feel that way again, but in a different light, a different world, a new day. So much has happened: a global pandemic, an economic collapse, an uprising in protest of injustice. There is no going back from here, so we won’t be returning to normal. We will move forward and stake a claim to the future.
“Sports were gone, but never far from our thoughts, never from our hearts. So tonight, we celebrate their return and feel the presence and power of sports once more. Welcome back to Major League Soccer. ”