MLS's return-to-play tournament is nearly over, but the resumption of the rest of the regular season is not far behind.
MLS announced its plan to resume to play in local markets on Saturday, beginning next week with the two teams that were forced to miss out on the MLS Is Back competition in Orlando. FC Dallas and Nashville SC have three games in hand on the rest of the league as a result of not being able to play in the group stage due to multiple positive coronavirus tests among their personnel. They'll kick off the post-Orlando return against each other with a pair of games in Frisco, Texas, on Aug. 12 and 16 to quickly bridge that gap. A limited number of fans will be allowed to attend in some markets in accordance with state guidelines, but MLS concedes that the majority of matches will be played behind closed doors.
That's effectively the same way USL clubs have operated under since their leagues returned last month. Other coronavirus considerations have shaped the next portion of the schedule as well, with travel limited as much as possible at the start and a decision yet to be made about what happens to the league's three Canadian teams while the Canadian government continues to oppose U.S.-based teams from traveling back and forth across the border. It's the same problem that forced baseball's Toronto Blue Jays to play their home games this season in Buffalo, N.Y.
"Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, MLS announced the initial phase of the league’s revised schedule with each U.S. club playing six matches against other U.S. teams by Sept. 14," the league wrote in a statement. "Major League Soccer continues to work with the league’s three Canadian clubs regarding plans to continue the regular season. More details on schedules for the Canadian teams will be announced in the near future."
The first full weekend of matches is set to be Aug. 21-23, kicking off what will be one of three six-game phases before an expanded playoffs. The opening phase will be heavy on regional rivalries. LAFC and the LA Galaxy will meet on Aug. 22, the same day that Inter Miami faces Orlando City and the Colorado Rapids play Real Salt Lake. The full schedule can be seen here.
Each team will play 18 additional matches, save for FC Dallas and Nashville, who will play 21 so that all 26 teams wind up on 23 games played. The rest of the schedule should be announced by early September.
“I would like to thank everyone involved with the MLS is Back Tournament–players, coaches, staff and partners–for their role in helping us recapture the momentum we had at the beginning of our 25th season and reconnect with our passionate fans,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said in a statement. “Since suspending play in March, we have been working on plans to play as much of our season as possible, beginning with the tournament in Florida and resuming in our local markets following the competition. We remain focused on the health and safety of our players, coaches and staff, and look forward to continuing our season in our home markets.”
MLS showed that its bubble worked, with no positive coronavirus tests for the last three weeks and counting, leading into Tuesday's tournament final between Orlando City and the Portland Timbers. The big wild card leaving that bubble is what happens outside of it and whether clubs are able to remain distanced from the virus that has infected nearly five million Americans and killed around 160,000. Players, coaches and essential staff will continue to be subjected to regular coronavirus testing and other "comprehensive health and safety protocols," the league said.
Presuming the regular season can resume without a hitch, then the playoffs will follow. MLS has been adamant about staging the remainder of its season to the best of its capacity, which means MLS Cup being pushed back into December. After the regular season ends on Nov. 8, the playoffs will begin on Nov. 20, with 18 teams making the 2020 edition, up from 14 last season. MLS Cup is slated for Dec. 12.
According to The Athletic, the playoffs could look as follows: With Nashville having moved to the Eastern Conference for the rest of 2020–which, in hindsight, is a bit of a waste considering that move was done to accommodate the groups at MLS Is Back and Nashville didn't wind up playing–there's an imbalance with 14 teams in the East and 12 in the West.
As a result, of the 18 teams that reach the playoffs, 10 would come from the East and eight would come from the West–with the last four teams in the East contesting what amounts to play-in games for an eight-team bracket. From there, eight teams in each conference would play a single-legged knockout games until an MLS Cup winner is crowned.
The league did not specify plans for the playoffs in its announcement on Saturday.