By Joe Pantorno
Sean Johnson is ready to get back to work.
New York City FC’s veteran goalkeeper, now in his fourth season in the Big Apple, will travel with his club down to Orlando, FL on June 27 to begin preparations for the “MLS is Back Tournament,” a summer reintroduction to Major League Soccer beginning on July 8 that brings the feeling of a major summer tournament with the precarious implications of league play in its group stage.
It will be the first major North American professional team sports league to open its doors after play was halted on March 12 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
NYCFC’s first opportunity to shake off the three-month-plus-old rust will come four days before the tournament with a Fourth of July friendly against FC Dallas.
“Just to be back on the pitch has been good,” Johnson said. “We deal with offseasons on a regular basis but this has been a different situation. I think we handled it to the best of our ability.”
All 26 MLS teams will compete in the tournament — which will be held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort — and will be broken up into six groups.
NYCFC was drawn into Group A, which is the lone group of six teams compared to the rest that contains just four. They’ll face the hosts, Orlando SC, along with the Philadelphia Union and expansion side, Nashville SC.
The top two teams from each group will automatically move on to the knockout stage of the tournament along with the top three third-place finishers.
Obviously, being a group of six compared to just four weakens NYCFC’s chances of moving on, but it’s none of Johnson’s concern.
“Competition is competition. The format of Orlando is unique, it’s not something that’s been done in the middle in any type of season,” he said. “As players, when you talk about competition, you don’t look to complain first about the draw you get or being at a disadvantage… we’re going out and trying to win and be dominant doing so.”
The group stage of the tournament is not that cut-and-dry, though. Each of the group-stage matches that are played will count toward the league standings when traditional play starts back up after the tournament.
NYCFC is currently at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings having lost their first two matches of the 2019-20 season before play was halted.
“Even being in a tournament style, your approach is that of league matches, but you’re also approaching in trying to move on in a tournament,” Johnson said of his philosophical approach to these matches. “After the first match, we’ll have a better understanding of where teams stand but also being conscious that it counts toward the standings in the league. It’s going to be difficult to juggle both and really strategize, but the reality is that it’s a tournament, all games count, all games matter, and that’s an important thing to fall back on.”
Unlike most major summer soccer tournaments, the MLS is Back competition will lack fans in the stands as a precaution of the coronavirus outbreak — something that takes away from the experience.
“It’ll be very similar to what a training environment will be,” Johnson said. “It’s not going to be the same not having fans there, but from a communications standpoint, it will be a lot easier to communicate with guys… up the pitch, which will be helpful for everyone and myself to get those messages across.”
While players will be seemingly safe in the isolated Disney World, there are concerns developing that are causing pause. In recent days, Florida — particularly Orlando — has seen a spike in coronavirus cases. Wednesday saw a dubious record of 3,207 new cases reported in the state.
“As players, we keep a close eye on it and I think it’s definitely a massive concern,” Johnson admitted. “I think it’s definitely something that’s alarming. We’ll keep an eye on it in the next week to see how things continue to progress along, but I definitely would say it’s a cause for concern for the players, staff, and anyone who will be down there.”