Image: Wikimedia Commons / Andy Witchger
Image: Wikimedia Commons / Andy Witchger

MLS must oversee perfect restart for North American sport

Major League Soccer (MLS) is set to return on 8 July at ESPN’s Wide World Sports Complex in Florida, with all 26 clubs participating in a World Cup-style tournament. The MLS is Back Tournament was announced just a fortnight ago, but concerns regarding the rate of Covid-19 infection in Florida has raised anxiety among the league’s players and club officials.

MLS teams have started to move into the league’s “bubble” resort; The Athletic has reported that the San Jose Earthquakes were the first team to arrive last week. MLS’ arrival in the Sunshine State is set against the backdrop of Florida’s worsening Covid-19 situation.

On Saturday 20 June Florida registered a single-day high of 4,671 new cases. The return of sport in North America has been hampered by the ongoing growth in Covid-19 cases in the United States. At an election rally in Tulsa last weekend, President Donald Trump said:

You’re going to find more people, you’re going to find more cases

– Donald Trump

“Testing is a double-edged sword. We’ve tested now 25 million people. It’s probably 20 million people more than anybody else. Germany’s done a lot, South Korea’s done a lot.”

“Here’s the bad part: when you do testing to that extent, you’re going to find more people, you’re going to find more cases. So, I said to my people, slow the testing down please.”

The return of MLS is thus fraught with risk. The United States’ response to the coronavirus pandemic has been widely condemned. It is thus essential that the league’s quarantine measures are effective: if Covid-19 bursts MLS’ ‘bubble,’ football’s North American return will be left in tatters.

Hospitality staff will be free to roam around Orlando, increasing risk

MLS plans to go ahead with the tournament as planned, but pressure is mounting on the league and Players Association to continually monitor the situation in Florida. The major source of discontent among players is the fact that hotel workers will not be placed into quarantine. Hospitality staff will be free to roam around Orlando, increasing the risk that coronavirus could break into MLS’ ‘bubble.’

Two Atlanta United players have tested positive for Covid-19 in recent days; The Athletic has reported that at least one other team has also had players test positive.

Orlando Pride was forced to withdraw from the NWSL’s Challenge Cup after a number of players tested positive for coronavirus. The return of women’s football has been far from faultless.

The MLS has laid the foundations for a productive return next month. The announcement of the MLS is Back Tournament was received warmly by the league’s domestic audience. Having all 26 teams competing for a place in the Concacaf Champions League is a welcome injection of excitement to re-open the season.

North American sport has every chance of making a successful comeback

MLS must; however, tread carefully. Novak Djokovic’s Adria Tour has proven the dangers of returning to the field too soon and without sufficient safeguards. The policies put in place by MLS are stringent. Players will be isolated, workers will complete daily questionnaires and temperature checks, teams will arrive in Orlando on charted flights.

If MLS follows the path laid down by the Bundesliga, North American sport has every chance of making a successful comeback in time for the fall. If MLS falls at the first hurdle, the repercussions for larger North American competitions is grave. MLS is almost back, but the weeks ahead will prove instrumental to the United States’ chances of staging professional sport in the near future.

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