MLS are hoping to restart play with a World Cup-style tournament that ties into the regular season. But how can they do this fairly and how do they make the tournament significant?
As sports leagues around the world panic to find some way of completing their respective seasons without entirely cratering their revenues, Major League Soccer has conjured up a plan to conduct a mini, World Cup-style tournament in Orlando.
The idea is quite simple, in theory: players and coaches will live in the resorts in and around the ESPN’s Wide World of Sports at the Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando, Florida. Florida, of course, have relaxed coronavirus-related measures, opening their arms to sports leagues across the country to play matches behind closed doors.
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ESPN, who is owned by Disney, is one of the major broadcasters of MLS. Not only does MLS need games back on television to recoup some of its lost revenue over the recent months; ESPN is desperate for some live sport to show across its channels.
From a football and competitive perspective, however, there are major questions that the league must find an adequate answer for. And at present, it is difficult to fathom what sort of answer might be sufficient enough.
Reports state that MLS will use the tournament in conjunction with the regular season. Conventional wisdom states that the group-stage matches, which will likely be formed in terms of conferences to fit into the fixture schedule, will count towards the regular season, before the knockout stages are then geared towards simply finding a winner.
This raises obvious questions regarding the integrity of the league. First and foremost, does MLS even know if there is going to be a regular-season when teams return to their home markets and play matches behind closed doors for the remainder of the year? It is very difficult to comprise a plan that ties matches from one competition into another competition that might not even happen yet.
Then there is the question of fairness. Certain players will miss the Orlando tournament due to personal circumstances. Carlos Vela and Javier Hernandez both have pregnant partners and have expressed their concern about spending such an extended period away from their partners. Is it fair to play without them when they are not injured? And what about home/away advantage? If you play three games in Orlando, those that lose two home games fall behind those that lose two away games.
Speaking of which games to lose, how in the world will MLS conjoin the two schedules to ensure that the league is at least semi-fair? There are already valid questions regarding the imbalanced schedule. This imbalance will surely be furthered here. It will be hugely difficult to avoid.
And all this is to avoid perhaps the most problematic aspect of this: how do you make a competition that no one really cares about and does not crown the champion of the league matter? There are reports of a cash prize, perhaps the winning team not having to partake in the expected wage cuts, or a CONCACAF Champions League berth on the line. These are all potential solutions, but they still do not address the core problem: Who cares who wins?
Somehow, MLS must make a tournament that nobody inherently cares about matter, tie it into a regular-season that may or may not be completed, all the while maintaining the sporting integrity of the season which is already slighted due to the fact that no one wants to win the competition because of the competition itself. As you can see, there is no easy answer here.