Of the concessions Major League Soccer players made in their new labor agreement with a league claiming $1 billion in revenue lost from the coronavirus pandemic, the one they gave most reluctantly involves time, not money.
Minnesota United veteran Ethan Finlay calls the monthlong tournament players agreed to play in Orlando involving all 26 teams in July “the biggest deal we were able to give” because of sacrifices they’ll make being away from home and their families for as many as 46 days.
Players agreed to be sequestered at a Disney resort all that time and will undergo extensive viral testing from before they leave home until their team wins a shiny cup or is eliminated in a made-for-TV event with $1 million in total prize money.
“It’ll be the NCAA tournament,” said Finlay, an MLS Players Association executive board member.
Plans still unannounced by MLS include early-morning and late-evening start times intended to fight the Florida summer heat at a 17-field Disney complex where teams will train and compete. MLS Commissioner Don Garber said viewers will be “impressed” with innovative, technologically advanced telecasts of games that will include more cameras and microphones than for a typical ESPN or Fox game.
Players agreed to risk their health and in many cases leave their wives, children and pets for what the league originally proposed would be as much as 68 days away. The players negotiated a shorter tournament that Finlay, married with a dog named Lola, calls “a huge difference.”
Players may be exempted from playing the tournament if they or their families have a medical or other compelling reason. Garber said players who aren’t granted an exception will be expected to play.
“We make sacrifices just about every other weekend,” Finlay said. “This is going to be a much longer sacrifice. They want to play soccer, but they also have an obligation to their family. I have no kids. I have sympathy for those guys having to deal with this.”
All of it is designed to get the league back playing games and generating television and corporate revenue again for the first time since games were suspended March 12 after just two weekends played.
“Obviously, it has been a tough year for everybody,” Loons veteran defender Michael Boxall said. “It has been a long way, and we’re excited to get back on the field and get down to Orlando and do our jobs.”
The Orlando tournament is a planned first phase to resume and play a season. League officials have proposed 18 more regular-season games — nine home, nine away — in team’s home markets come fall, if approved by local government and almost certainly without fans. Playoffs could be played well into December, with a possibility the MLS Cup wouldn’t be played until 2021.
“Players didn’t sign this deal to go to Orlando because they think it is the last bit of soccer for 2020,” Finlay said. “Orlando is the only way to get back playing as soon as possible.”
Minnesota United players held their first small-group training sessions — six people maximum together — on Thursday, the same day MLS announced it had lifted its full team-training moratorium. The Loons will advance to full team training after the club submits a plan to the league and local health officials for their clearance.
Finlay said he’s hopeful the team can train together at home for an extra week and won’t travel to Orlando until late June or early July, in time for games tentatively scheduled to begin July 9. The Loons will be with three other Western Conference teams that will play three group-play games against one another.
Sixteen teams will advance from group play to a knockout round that continues to eliminate teams until a final that will stretch into August.
Those first three group games count toward the season standings to ensure competition. Loons coach Adrian Heath last month assured those games will be “meaningful football.”
The further teams advance toward the championship, the more prize money players will earn. That’s incentive not to bust out of quarantine and head home early.
What it is, is a start.
“We have to think about the long term,” Heath said. “We’re fully aware up until a day or so ago, we didn’t even know if we’d have a season. And now we do. Now we have something to aim towards. We’ll be prepared when it comes around.”