TORONTO — Major League Soccer conceded Tuesday that a return to play in mid-May is “extremely unlikely,” as is fitting in the entire season.
And when play does resume, it will likely do so at empty stadiums. Commissioner Don Garber told ESPN on Monday that the league is looking at the “concept of a tournament” at a number of different locations prior to starting the regular season.
The resumption of the season will probably be before empty stands — “we’re calling them MLS studio games,” said Garber.
“The plan is to play as many games of the 34-game season as possible,” he added.
Like many leagues, MLS announced a 30-day suspension of play on March 12 — two weeks into the regular season — due to the COVID-19 outbreak. A week later, citing Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, it extended its season hiatus with a target return date of May 10.
At the time, it said it remained focused on playing the entire 2020 campaign.
The league walked that back in a brief statement Tuesday
“Although we hoped to return to play in mid-May, that is extremely unlikely based on the guidance of federal and local public health authorities. Our goal remains to play as many games as possible, and while we currently have enough dates to play the entire season, we recognize at this time that it may become difficult to do so.
“We continue to learn more every day from the medical experts, and we expect to have additional details in the coming weeks regarding when we can return to play.”
Los Angles FC coach Bob Bradley is no stranger to playing in an empty stadium.
In 2012, while coach of Egypt, he was on the sidelines for a World Cup qualifier in Alexandria against visiting Mozambique at the 86,000-capacity Borg el Arab military stadium. The doors were locked in the wake of a stadium riot that killed more than 70 people in Port Said.
“It was an eerie feeling,” Bradley told an MLS media video conference Tuesday. “I remember when we trained in the stadium the night before the game, we gathered everybody before we started training and we said ‘Try to look into the stands and imagine that there’s 90 million Egyptians here. Because if they had the chance, all of them would be here with us.’
“We all know that the connection that we have with our supporters is key. Games without fans, they’re sad in away. But we’re also in unprecedented times and so I know that the kind of discussions that lead towards restarting without fans, that’s still a way to reconnect.
“It will be a challenge, for sure. But in that same way, I think all of us when we finally get started, we’ll look into those stands and in our case we’ll see the 3252 (an LAFC supporters group). And we’ll see those people that come every time to the Banc of California (Stadium) and are there with us.
“You’ve got to find ways in tough times to adapt. It’s not what any player in the world would want. In reality, a game without fans has no soul, But as I said, this is different. And we are all looking to find ways — when it’s the right time, when it’s safe — to get going again.”
The league has some scheduling wiggle room given it staged the MLS Cup in December from 2012 to 2018 prior to trimming the playoffs last year by changing the earlier rounds to knockout matches from a two-leg format.
The championship game was held Nov 10 last year. This year’s MLS Cup had been scheduled for Nov 7.
Earlier this month the league extended its team training moratorium to April 24. That means MLS training facilities are closed to all players and staff with the exception of players requiring treatment or rehabilitation. Players are expected to remain in their respective market, barring league approval for players who want to move to another market by car.
The training moratorium has been in effect since the league suspended play.
In addition to continuing their workouts at home, players are expanding their interests. Whitecaps defender Jake Nerwinski is trying to learn the piano while teammate Andy Rose, who has a two-year-old son, is working on online modules for his UEFA A license coaching badge and continuing work via Southern New Hampshire University, the league’s education partner, on a master’s in sports management.
Rose also just had a trampoline delivered to his home.
“So wish me luck putting that together the rest of the day,” he told a Whitecaps video conference.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 14, 2020.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press