Major League Soccer returns Wednesday after a four-month shutdown because of the coronavirus pandemic, leading the NBA and WNBA back into action in Florida.
The 26-team MLS will be the biggest men’s pro sports league in the U.S. to play games since March 11.
Like both basketball leagues that will resume their seasons later this month, MLS will do so with life and competition played out under a protective “bubble” day and night in Florida.
The league begins its monthlong “MLS is Back” tournament when Orlando City and Inter Miami play Wednesday’s opener in a made-for-TV production designed to get both play and revenue flowing again, even without fans in attendance at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World.
“This is what we do,” Minnesota United coach Adrian Heath said. “This is what players do.
WNBA teams — including the Lynx — began arriving on Monday 120 miles away in Bradenton, Fla., at the IMG Academy. That’s where all 12 teams are set to briefly quarantine, then practice and scrimmage before they play a shortened 22-game season there.
“This is not normal, not normal for anyone,” Lynx star center Sylvia Fowles said. “You pretty much have to roll with it.”
Twenty-two of the NBA’s 30 teams — the Timberwolves excluded — started arriving Tuesday in Orlando at the same complex that now is home to MLS. They’ll play eight “seeding” games starting July 30, which will determine a 16-team playoff field that eventually crowns a champion in October.
“The toughest part, there’s no playbook, right?” Denver Nuggets coach Mike Malone said. “There’s no one I can call who has been through what we’re about to go through.”
Florida in general and Walt Disney World in particular are home to the return of those leagues after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis extended invitations when many other states hadn’t yet opened themselves for business. That was well before coronavirus cases recently spiked in the state. MLS, the NBA and the WNBA all accepted, each housed at resort hotels or villas that presumably will keep players, coaches and staff safe in a bubble stretched from their rooms to fields or courts and keep the virus out.
But the virus already has disrupted the MLS event. FC Dallas on Monday withdrew from the tournament after 10 players tested positive for the virus. Nashville’s game against Chicago on Wednesday — the nightcap to the tournament’s first day — was postponed when five Nashville players tested positive. LAFC star Carlos Vela, the reigning MVP, opted out of the tournament because his wife is pregnant. Minnesota United’s Ike Opara, the 2019 MLS Defender of the Year, is home in Minnesota rehabilitating what he called a pre-existing condition. A team spokesperson said it is unrelated to the virus.
Loons players have been sequestered in their hotel for the past 10 days, masked wherever they go except in their own rooms, tested for the virus with nasal swabs every other day now. Each MLS team has its own secured hotel floor. The Loons’ floor has a meal room, three players’ lounges and a team room with table tennis, board games, poker tables and old-school arcade games.
“This pandemic is crazy, it has come here for so long,” Loons veteran and captain Ozzie Alonso said. “You have a family. Everyone is concerned. But we are here now and we’re here to do the best for the league. For us, we decided to play again because it has been awhile without playing soccer.”
Alonso has three young children and they’re in Minnesota and he’s checked into Disney World, unable to escape the bubble until his team either exits or wins a tournament that ends Aug. 11.
“I come here to play soccer,” Alonso said. “I’m not here to enjoy the Disney World. I’m in the hotel. They know I’m here to work.”
He and his teammates haven’t played a game since they won their season’s first two games, both on the West Coast, in March’s first week. More than four months later, they’ll play again Sunday evening against Sporting Kansas City in a tournament which, as MLS commissioner Don Garber said last month, “at least allows us to get back in front of our fans. … It was really important for us to get back.”
Garber determined that essential for a league that relies on its gate receipts and gameday sales and hasn’t had a fan base around for generations like some other U.S. pro team sports leagues. He said MLS has taken a $1 billion financial hit.
He told the Associated Press on Monday that he’ll shut down the tournament if he believes the safety protocols aren’t working and players’ health and safety are at risk. He said the test results are “proving that our protocols worked and our plan so far has been sound.”
Asked if he and his team feel safe in their bubble, Heath said, “We do. You’re wearing masks. You don’t see anybody from the outside world. There’s security around the hotel. You can’t get out and about. If anybody is catching it, it’s in the hotel.”
In her second day in Bradenton, Fowles, too, said she felt safe inside IMG facilities and following WNBA protocols. They include an initial four-day quarantine and daily testing for the first two weeks for everyone in the Lynx’s traveling party.
“We’re pretty much a blank slate in this,” Fowles said. “It’s going to determine your mind-set. If you’re positive about it, things will happen for you. If you sit and complain, things are not going to work out. We don’t want to be that team that complains.”
MLS teams will earn points from the first three group-stage games they play that will apply if the 2020 regular season continues after the tournament ends. All teams are playing for $1.1 million in prize money.
NBA and WNBA teams are playing for a title in shortened seasons. Malone said that shouldn’t in any way include an asterisk next to the winning team’s name.
“I don’t buy that at all,” he said. “You’re in a bubble. You’re isolated from your friends and family. You have no home-court advantage. The league is interrupted four months and you spend 90 days there and come out a champion, I think this will be the toughest championship ever won. So there’s no asterisk.
“You win an NBA championship any time, it’s a hell of a accomplishment. These are unprecedented times.”
Loons defender Chase Gasper last month said the competition is what excites him most from this road trip that could last 46 days for the winners.
“I thought you were going to say Mickey Mouse,” Heath said.
“That’s No. 2 on the list,” Gasper said.