By Joe Pantorno
Major League Soccer is officially ready to roll.
On Wednesday morning, the United States and Canada’s top-flight soccer league announced that MLS will return to action with a summer tournament on July 8 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, FL.
The league’s 25th season was halted just two weeks in due to the coronavirus pandemic on March 12 and is slated to be the first team sports league in the United States to return to competitive play.
“We are pleased to team up with Disney to relaunch the 2020 MLS season and get back to playing soccer,” said MLS Commissioner Don Garber.“The opportunity to have all 26 clubs in a controlled environment enables us to help protect the health of our players, coaches, and staff as we return to play.”
The NBA and NHL are expected to resume play in late-July while MLB has a July 10 plan in place, but it depends on negotiations between the league and its players’ union.
MLS’ summer tournament is a complete revamp of the league’s normal league play, but it gives sports fans a World Cup feel to welcome sports back to the national forefront.
All 26 MLS clubs will participate in the tournament and will be broken up into six groups — three per conference. The teams will be drawn randomly from a lottery-type system on Thursday at 3:30 p.m. ET.
Each group will have one “seeded team,” with Orlando City SC, considered the host of the tournament, as the top seed in Group A, which consists of six teams.
The remaining five top-seeded teams are Atlanta United (2019 MLS Cup semifinalist), Toronto FC (semifinalist), LAFC (semifinalist), Seattle Sounders (MLS Champions), and Real Salt Lake. The 20 unseeded teams will be drawn randomly into their corresponding conference’s groups.
“We are all very excited about the return of our league with the MLS is Back tournament,” said New York Red Bulls Sporting Director Denis Hamlett. “Our players and staff have been working hard to make sure we are ready to compete. It will be a new and unique experience for all of us. We look forward to getting back to competitive games in an environment that puts health and safety of everyone involved first.”
Each team will play the other three teams in their group once over the 16-day group-stage period. The top two teams from each group and the four best third-place finishers will move on to the knockout stage, beginning with the Round of 16 on July 25.
From there, a single-elimination format will take over for the rest of the tournament, leading up to the final on Aug. 11. Any match tied after the 90-minute regulation period will go straight to penalties.
MLS’ season does not finish after this tournament, though.
While the winner gets an automatic place in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League, each of the 39 group-stage games will count for points toward the 2020 MLS regular season, which will resume its normal format to be revealed at a later date.