MLS Unveils Details, Format for Return-to-Play Tournament in Orlando

All 26 teams will descend on Orlando, where a World Cup-style tournament will unfold to restart the league's 2020 season. Here's what it will look like.
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It was widely known that MLS will relaunch its 25th season with a tournament in Orlando. Now we know what that will look like.

MLS revealed the details for its event at the ESPN Wide World of Sports at Disney World Resort, which will take place from July 8 to August 11 and take the form of a World Cup. There will be a three-game group stage for which all 26 of the league's teams will be active, followed by a 16-team single-elimination knockout stage en route to crowning the champion.

There's incentive for the winner, with a 2021 Concacaf Champions League berth on the line. That berth has been permitted to go to either a U.S. or Canadian-based club and replaces the berth that typically goes to the conference winner that did not win the Supporters' Shield. It's a one-off, with qualification reverting to its normal protocols next year.

That stipulation had to be approved by Concacaf and relayed through U.S. Soccer and the Canadian Soccer Association.

"Concacaf agreed to grant U.S. Soccer’s request, and to support MLS with their tournament, following positive conversations with Canada Soccer, and a commitment from MLS that if a Canadian team wins MLS Is Back it will compete in the Canadian Championship," Concacaf wrote in a statement. "This decision has no bearing on Canada Soccer’s qualification spot into the 2021 SCCL, which remains in place. Canada Soccer will continue discussions internally to determine the criteria of how they would recommend to qualify a Canadian club to the 2021 SCCL in the event that the same team wins the MLS Is Back tournament and the Canadian Championship. Such a recommendation would require Concacaf Council approval."

Beyond the CCL berth, there's also a $1.1 million prize pool, though it's unclear how it will be distributed. That could provide a little added motivation for players who made financial concessions as part of the return-to-play agreement. The three group games will also count toward the regular-season standings. The league says that it intends to resume its season, which was two games in when the coronavirus pandemic forced its suspension, in home markets with a revised schedule at a later date.

"I'm very optimistic," MLS commissioner Don Garber said Wednesday. "I expect that we will be back in our stadiums, we just don’t know the exact date.

"I do think we’ll get back to our markets. I think all of our fans should expect that to happen. ... We’re also hearing about different guidelines that have been established state by state where there’s even a possibility where some fans might be able to attend games."

The particulars for the tournament in Orlando, meanwhile, go as follows: Thursday at 3:30 ET, a draw will separate the league's teams into six groups: Three four-team groups for Western Conference teams and two four-team and one six-team group for the Eastern Conference teams. For the purposes of this tournament–and the remainder of the season–expansion club Nashville SC has been swung into the East.

As the host team, Orlando City will be the "top seed" in the six-team group. The other seeds go to last season's four playoff semifinalists (Atlanta United, Toronto FC, Seattle Sounders, LAFC) and the team in the West that had the next-highest points total last season, which is Real Salt Lake.

The remaining 20 teams will be split at random into the six groups. 

In group play, each team will play three games, with games staged on 16 consecutive days during three time slots: 9 a.m., 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. (all times Eastern). Most games will be played in the evening windows. The top two teams in each group and the four best third-place sides will advance to the knockout stage, where any matches that end in draws will go directly to penalty kicks.

Teams will arrive in Orlando starting on June 24 to begin training, with the first day of games slated for July 8. The group stage will go until July 23, with a day off before the round of 16 (July 25-28). The quarterfinals are slated for July 30-Aug. 1, the semifinals Aug. 5-6 and the championship on Aug. 11.

In all, the tournament will feature 54 matches, with every club guaranteed three games and the two finalists to have played seven. The league's medical department has developed a strict health protocol guide, including testing procedures and what happens in the event of a positive test. That can be viewed in full here.

In terms of any differences to matchday, MLS is adhering to FIFA's recommendation to increase the amount of substitutes per match to five from the customary three. Clubs will also be able to feature 23-player matchday rosters.