What Nashville's Withdrawal Means for MLS Is Back Tournament, 2020 Season

Nashville joins Dallas on the outside looking in after multiple positive coronavirus tests, with MLS forced to reconfigure its return-to-play tournament on the fly.
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The MLS is Back Tournament is down to 24 teams. Nashville SC was removed from the competition on Thursday, the league announced, becoming the second club to be withdrawn. FC Dallas left the tournament on Monday. Both teams had numerous players test positive for the coronavirus prior to Wednesday’s opening game.

MLS is Back is scheduled to run July 8-August 11 inside a bubble created at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex and the Swan and Dolphin resort in Orlando.

Dallas and Nashville players likely contracted the virus before arrival. MLS announced Tuesday that five Nashville players were confirmed positive, with four more requiring additional testing. During ESPN’s broadcast of the Orlando City-Inter Miami opener on Wednesday night, MLS commissioner Don Garber said those four results, plus consultation with doctors, would determine Nashville’s fate.

“Nashville SC arrived in Orlando, Fla. on July 1, having taken all the necessary steps and following all the mandated protocols established by the league as well as local and national health authorities to minimize the risk and exposure to the virus. Despite the precautions, one player tested positive upon arrival at the host hotel, and another eight Nashville SC players tested positive upon a few days of arrival,” MLS explained Thursday.

“Following daily testing of players and staff during the past nine days, it was determined that the club would not be medically cleared to get sufficient training before their next match. As a result, it was decided that it would be in the best interest of the health and safety of the players, the staff and the rest of the league that Nashville SC does not participate in the tournament,” the league added.

According to The Athletic, Nashville’s players voted Wednesday night to continue playing; however they were overruled by the league.

Nashville SC is out of the MLS Is Back Tournament

Already faced with the prospect of reconfiguring the event following Dallas’s departure, MLS faced further pressure to realign with Nashville bowing out. That left one group with five teams, one with three teams and four with four. The groups originally were designed to feature only intra-conference games because first-round matches will double as regular season contests.

Moving someone from the five-team group, Group A, to the three-team group, Group B, would result in a tidy 24-team layout (six groups of four). But it creates a problem down the road, since A is an Eastern Conference group and B features Western teams. Nevertheless, the Chicago Fire, the only Group A team yet to play, was transferred to B. It will open the tournament July 14 against the Seattle Sounders.

The top two teams from each group plus the four best third-place finishers will move on to the round of 16.

MLS also will have to figure out how to address the fact that both FCD and NSC will have three games in hand once/if the 2020 regular season resumes. Both Chicago and Nashville will remain in the Eastern Conference, MLS confirmed.

MLS said Wednesday night that there were four new positive tests combined from two clubs after 1,888 individual tests were administered on Tuesday and Wednesday to team and league personnel operating inside the Orlando bubble. The potential that the virus has been contracted inside the bubble might be more concerning than the two teams that brought it from home.

MLS’s two 2020 expansion teams have had unlucky starts. Inter Miami is not only 0-3-0, having suffered close losses in each of its three games, it hasn’t even made its home debut because the pandemic derailed the season just a few days before its South Florida opener. During Wednesday's 2-1 loss to Orlando (on a stoppage-time goal, no less), defender Andrés Reyes took an arm to his throat and went to the hospital. Although Reyes is fine, his departure from the bubble necessitates isolation from his team until he clears additional testing. Now Nashville, which lost its first two games, won’t get to play a third for the foreseeable future.

“In what has been a challenging year, and in an uncharted environment created by the Tornado that devastated our city, and COVID-19, this is another big disappointing outcome for Nashville SC and its supporters,” Nashville CEO Ian Ayre said Thursday. “Our focus now lays on the recovery of our players who have been infected with COVID-19 and on getting our complete traveling party back home safely. Once everyone is safe and healthy in Nashville, we can then turn the page and focus on our preparation and participation in the return to play for the latter half of the season post-Orlando.”