MLS Reveals Schedule, Slight Tweak for Return Tournament as Florida Coronavirus Cases Surge

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MLS is forging ahead with its Orlando tournament, with a slight format adjustment, and announced its full schedule on Wednesday afternoon—the same day the state of Florida set a new high in coronavirus cases.

MLS plans to house its 26 clubs and all league personnel at a resort hotel a couple miles north of the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex, which will be home to the MLS is Back Tournament. The 26 teams will be divided into six intra-conference groups, from which 16 will advance to the knockout stage. The tournament winner, to be decided Aug. 11, will earn a spot in the 2021 Concacaf Champions League.

All matches in the group stage, which begins July 8, will count toward 2020 regular season standings.

The format tweak is in Group A, which comprises six clubs instead of four. Now, the third-place finisher will earn direct passage to the round of 16, instead of just the top two. As a result, only three third-place wild cards (or the fourth-place team from Group A) will move on, as opposed to the original four.

Matches will be televised in the USA by ESPN, Fox and Univision channels. Each team will have at least four full days off between games.

MLS is Back tournament groups in the Eastern Conference
MLS is Back tournament groups in the Western Conference

The full schedule can be seen here. Group-stage highlights include:

Group A: July 8, 8 p.m. ET (ESPN) - The tournament opener between Inter Miami and host Orlando City, the first Florida derby in MLS since 2001.

Group B: July 15, 9 a.m. ET (ESPN) - The reigning champ Seattle Sounders reprise last season’s epic playoff game against FC Dallas.

Group C: July 15, 8 p.m. ET (TUDN) - The Montreal Impact and Toronto FC face off in the 401 Derby.

Group D: July 12, 10:30 p.m. ET (ESPN) - Real Salt Lake was seeded along with three of the four clubs that began the 2020 season 2-0-0. RSL’s first hurdle will come against Rocky Mountain Cup rival Colorado Rapids. Sporting Kansas City and Minnesota United play earlier the same evening.

Group E: July 11, 10:30 p.m. ET (FS1 and TUDN) - The Columbus Crew and FC Cincinnati renew their Hell Is Real rivalry.

Group F: July 18, 10:30 p.m. ET (ESPN) - The marquee game of the first round features the LA Galaxy and Los Angeles FC in the first El Tráfico of 2020.

The knockout stage begins July 25 with a doubleheader, and will continue through the quarterfinals (July 30-Aug. 1), semifinals (Aug. 5-6) and final (Aug. 11).

Here are the round-of-16 matchups:

July 25: A1 vs. Wild card from B/C/D/E, A2 vs. C2

July 26: B1 vs. A3, D1 vs. Wild card from B/C/E/F

July 27: C1 vs. Wild card from A/B/D/F, B2 vs. F2

July 28: E1 vs. D2, F1 vs. E2

Bracketing beyond the round of 16 wasn't revealed.

The San Jose Earthquakes were scheduled to arrive in Florida on Wednesday, with teams that have been permitted to train fully in their home markets expected to follow. The’ll be arriving as Florida continues to wrestle with the coronavirus, which is surging once again. 

Although MLS plans to keep players and staff in a “bubble” at the resort, with very limited exposure and frequent testing, the area remains a virus hotspot. While South Florida was the largest contributor to Wednesday’s state record, Osceola County, where the ESPN fields are located, has seen its rate of positive tests increase from 2.98% during the week ended June 7 to 7.77% during the week ended June 14, according to the Orlando Sentinel. Adjacent Orange County, home to Orlando, endured an increase from 5.06% to 12.02%.

The Rapids announced Wednesday afternoon that it had a player test positive on Tuesday.