MLS is Back: Coronavirus outbreak raises questions

MLS, Don Garber (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images)
MLS, Don Garber (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images) /

The MLS is Back Tournament is meant to commence this week. But several teams are experiencing coronavirus outbreaks. This must raise questions regarding the safety and validity of the competition.

Everyone knows why Major League Soccer’s MLS is Back Tournament is set to commence this week. Don Garber heavily hinted as much earlier this year when he confirmed that the league has lost approximately $1 billion in revenue as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

This is not to appease fans. It is not to create a genuinely competitive and interesting competition. It is to raise money, both for MLS and for ESPN and the other broadcasters who are desperate for live sports, in one form or another.

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Greed, sadly, is an extremely powerful motive and MLS is desperate to save itself from haemorrhaging cash. The league, like every other business, has a right to conjure plans to deal with the pandemic and create a competition that works in the ‘new normal’. Just as restaurants, shops, banks and all businesses are having to amend their operations to deal with the current crisis, MLS also has the right to make plans.

The difference, though, is that many of the other businesses’ plans have safety in mind. Social distancing in shops, working from home for office-based jobs, wearing masks and protective gear at bars, restaurants, cafes and barbershops. MLS has attempted to install what they believe are the necessary safety precautions. But the results paint a very different and much starker story.

On Saturday, the league confirmed that FC Dallas’ match against the Vancouver Whitecaps would be postponed. FC Dallas had suffered a raft of positive tests, including nine players and one coach. They have since been quarantining in Orlando, where the MLS is attempting to build a ‘bubble’ such that teams can live and compete there without contact with the outside world, unable to train.

Vancouver, meanwhile, were scheduled to travel to Orlando on Wednesday. However, their plans were delayed due to two inconclusive COVID-19 tests during pre-travel screening. It was later confirmed that these tests were negative but the uncertainty disrupted their plans. The league said the game will be played at a later date, providing both Vancouver and Dallas with time to quarantine and gain control over the virus, if that is at all possible.

But they are not the only teams to struggle. The Columbus Crew have had a positive test. The team is currently quarantining in Orlando. Nashville SC also produced a positive test in their pre-travel screening. They have not yet travelled to Orlando.

The Montreal Impact cut short a training session this week, reports stating that was due to a positive test, while several teams have postponed their scheduled travel to Orlando, with Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney stating that he believes it is safer to keep his players in Toronto where it is a ‘controlled environment’ instead of moving to the MLS bubble.

To put it nicely, it is a mess. The situation is not nearly under control, the tests are only growing, and the players are not safe. Several have raised concerns about the situation publicly. Privately, plenty will have a harsh view on the league’s obdurate resilience to play this tournament.

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Whether MLS is Back commences and is completed or not remains to be seen. But the raft of positive cases raises serious uncertainty regarding the validity and efficacy of the league’s plan. Questions must be asked, and right now, very few answers are being given.