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It’s not the season Major League Soccer anticipated, but the restart will offer fans an enticing alternative: a continuous schedule of matches in Florida nearly every day beginning July 8.

The league announced details Wednesday morning for its MLS is Back Tournament at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort. The tournament will be played without fans. 

Teams will be sequestered at the Disney complex and the league has announced a strict testing protocol. 

Similar to a World Cup format, multiple games will be played daily, beginning at 9 a.m. ET, 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m.

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MLS suspended its season March 12 due to the pandemic after teams had played two games. NBA also has plans in the works to resume the season at the complex in Orlando with 22 teams reporting for a condensed schedule of games beginning July 31. 

In MLS, each of the 26 teams will play three group stage matches, and those results will count in the regular season standings. After 16 consecutive days of group stage matches, the top two teams from each group along with the four best third-place finishers will move on to the knockout stage.

The knockout stage will include a Round-of-16, quarterfinals, semifinals and the championship match will be held Aug. 11.

MLS commissioner Don Garber met with the media Wednesday via video conference call and detailed the three-month-long endeavor to plan and execute the tournament.

“We came up with this concept of a 54-match tournament similar to the very successful World Cup here in 1994 where only 24 nations competed,” said Garber. “Each team will have a minimum of three games in the group stage. Those results will count for the 2020 MLS season standings and that will continue when we’re able to continue our season when we’re back in our home markets.”

Safety, testing procedures

Garber was asked numerous times Wednesday how the league will handle safety and medical issues regarding COVID-19. 

As for the testing protocol, during an individual’s first two weeks in Orlando, that person will be tested every other day. After those first 14 days, players, coaches and referees will be tested regularly, including the day before each matchday. 

“I think guys feel reasonably comfortable with it. I think some of the protocols have been well thought out,” FC Cincinnati goalkeeper Spencer Richey said. 

Self-temperature screenings and the completion of standardized screening questionnaires will be required for all individuals traveling to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex or providing services at the hotel and convention center where MLS league and club personnel will be staying.

A positive response to the daily questionnaire or a temperature check above 100.3 degrees must be reported and the individual in question will be isolated immediately and PCR testing will be performed.

With facemasks, PPE, social distancing and temperature screenings, Garber said he’s confident they’ll be able to manage the tournament safely.

Garber was asked if there’s a number of positive tests that would halt or suspend the tournament.

“No specific protocol for how many positive tests would have us take a step back and think about what happens next,” Garber said. “It’s why we’re so focused on regular testing and ensuring that we do what we need to do to keep our players safe and managing what would happen should a player test positive.”

A positive test from a player would mean that player is removed from the tournament and placed in quarantine, then contact tracing would be done for those that were in contact within 10 feet of that person.

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Top seeds

A draw for the tournament will be held Thursday to determine the six groups. For the remainder of the season, Nashville SC will be moved to the Eastern Conference. The Eastern Conference will have three groups, one consisting of six teams and two consisting of four teams each. The Western Conference will have three groups, each consisting of four teams.

As the host club, Orlando City SC will be given the top seed in Group A, which will be the six-team group, and will play in the first match on July 8.  The five remaining seeds will consist of the four semifinalists from the 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs – Atlanta United, Los Angeles Football Club, Seattle Sounders FC, Toronto FC – and Real Salt Lake (the team with the next highest points total in the Western Conference from the 2019 season). 

The seeded teams will be drawn into their respective groups first and then the remaining 20 clubs will be drawn and distributed across the conference-based groups.

After the MLS is Back Tournament, MLS plans to continue its regular season with a revised schedule in home markets, followed by the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs and the 25th MLS Cup. The schedule will be developed at a later date. 

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