The Washington Post and The Athletic have reported the MLS proposal for a summer tournament in Orlando occurring in place of the MLS season, which has been on hiatus since the coronavirus pandemic escalated on March 12. All players and coaches of the 26 MLS teams have been invited to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando for training beginning June 1, with matches starting as early as June 22, should the MLS Players Association approve the proposal.
"This community is ready to do it, and Orlando is the perfect city to hold an event like that," Orlando City coach Oscar Pareja endorsed in a videoconference. Governor Ron DeSantis has also given his approval for the MLS to play games in Orlando.
The tournament will involve matches without spectators for everyone's safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. There is an expectation for interactive engagement on the ESPN and MLS digital platforms so that fans can still bond and cheer while preventing the spread of the virus.
On May 21, The Athletic reported the league's current plan for the tournament, though sources say that these plans have not been set in stone. There would be four groups (two from the Western Conference and two from the Eastern Conference), with three groups having six teams and the fourth group having eight teams. Each team would play a minimum of five games, with the top two teams from each group advancing to the knockout round. While group stage games would count in the league standings, knockout games would not. No inter-conference play will take place should a shortened regular season occur post-tournament.
In theory, this all sounds great – but not to some of the league's high-profile players.
In a recent interview with Taylor Twellman of ESPN, Philadelphia Union captain and designated player Alejandro Bedoya expressed his concerns regarding the Orlando plan.
"I would start off by saying that I think every one of us agree that we want to get back to playing," Bedoya said. "I want to get back out there, being competitive, [playing] games. The staff wants to be out there, fans want to be watching games, but I will say that this all feels a little bit rushed.”
Bedoya goes on to point out the obvious fact that “ESPN and Disney […] is just partnering with MLS to help the owners out and to show games. I think the players are taking all the risks by going down [to Orlando], being isolated. It's a strong term to say, but it's like being in a luxurious prison."
A central concern of Bedoya's is that MLS has yet to confirm whether or not hotel staff will be required to quarantine with the players. It appears hotel staff will be able to come and go from the facility as they please, putting into question the league's decision to isolate the players from their families.
Playing in MLS is the player's livelihood, so of course, they want to get back to playing. But two months of isolation and the occasional outing for practice and games is not good for anyone’s mental health.
Real Salt Lake defender Nedum Onuoha shared with ESPN his concerns:
"For me personally I can talk bigger picture, but if I were to talk about how it would affect me, it's not something that I would like to do," Onuoha said. "Like I understand financially, it's maybe something that would benefit the owners, benefit the league, and so on, but this time here it's really highlighted mental health and what things are like at home and so on.
"The past two months, you've been at home, and people have still struggled. So now to suggest that the best option would be to take all these players, without their families, without their friends, without the things that are really [comforting] to them, and put them in a place for the purpose of entertainment or the financial side of it seems short-sighted."
Bedoya suggested regional play rather than the Orlando plan, with games played every three days so that players and staff don’t have to be away from their families for eight weeks. It seems as though Bedoya’s plan would be the better way to go. But at the same time, the league is rightfully concerned with safety. If they can have all the teams at one location, they feel like they can prevent the spread of the virus.
Regardless of what the league chooses to do, us fans will be watching.