With the start of strict voluntary individual player workouts officially underway in select Major League Soccer facilities (our Colorado Rapids started Thursday, May 14th), patient MLS fans are now waiting on news from the League’s Commissioner, Don Garber, concerning when, where and in what format will the 2020 season resume.
This week, The Washington Post and The Athletic reported unnamed sources stating that the league is considering hosting a 26-team tournament format season in south suburban Orlando’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex (ESPNWWSC) at Disney World. The reports added that each team would start training at ESPNWWSC as early as June 1st and fan-less, round-robin tournament-style play starting approximately four weeks later. (MLS has since extended the small group training moratorium until June 1st.)
Located 18 miles south of downtown Orlando, the 220-acre complex is impressive and worthy of serious consideration. It is complete with a 7,500-seat minor league-style baseball stadium and four ancillary baseball diamonds, a 5,000-seat multi-sport field house, a 70,000-square-foot arena, and an 8,000-seat volleyball/basketball entertainment center. This past January, the NFL hosted its 2019 ProBowl training sessions on several regulation football fields at the Complex, while elite soccer youth competed nearby on 17 regulation soccer fields.
Logically speaking, the setting, albeit not in MLS hometown with roaring soccer-starved crowds, would be ideal, as sufficient training and plush playing field sites are available, in addition to nearby shelter-in-place team accommodations and dining options. North of the Complex are the Disney World theme parks and an array of high-capacity hotels and dining facilities.
Overlaying the possible ESPNWWSC destination, the Washington Post reported that player families would be excluded from joining the teams for the duration of play in greater Orlando. Additionally, MLS made a formal proposal to the MLS Players Association asking for a 20% pay cut from players, as well as other financial concessions due to the pandemic. The Players Association had not publicly commented as of Friday, May 15th.
The state of Florida is onboard
News of MLS possibly training and playing in Orlando was amplified this past Wednesday morning in Tallahassee, when Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said that “all professional sports are welcome here for practicing and for playing” during a news conference in the state Capitol. He continued, “there’s been reports that Major League Soccer may want to have their season in Orlando. Do it. We want to have you here.”
“What I would tell commissioners of leagues is, if you have a team in an area where they just won’t let them operate, we’ll find a place for you here in the state of Florida.” DeSantis added that his state “was open to leagues looking to restart, or start, their seasons.”
Is it safe to play in Florida?
On Monday, May 4th, Governor DeSantis kicked-off his Phase 1 “SAFE. SMART. STEP-BY-STEP PLAN” to methodically and safely reopen Florida. The plan includes restaurants and businesses being allowed to operate on a limited basis.
DeSantis also deemed sports as “essential services.” On May 24th, a COVID-19 relief pro-athlete golf event called “The Match: Champions for Charity” featuring Phil Mickelson/Tom Brady versus Tiger Woods/Peyton Manning will be played at the Medalist Golf Club in Hobe Sound, Florida (minus spectators).
The Phase 1 plan also permits World Wrestling Entertainment and Ultimate Fighting Championship events to resume in Florida, also without fans at the venues.
Given that fan-free sporting events have been given the green light both by the Governor and Florida State Public Health officials, it makes sense that MLS is exploring the Orlando train-and-play option.
Perspectives from MLS (and former Rapids’) Head Coaches Oscar Pareja and Gary Smith
During a video conference call from Orlando City SC’s training complex, former Colorado Rapids manager and current Orlando head coach Oscar Pareja echoed Florida Governor DeSantis’ sentiments. “What I can say if this community is ready to do it, then Orlando is the perfect city to hold an event like that,” Pareja said. “The experience, infrastructure, everything. Orlando has everything to hold it. If the league decides to do that, I think it’ll be a great decision to play it here. It’s just rumors right now, but I don’t see any other city that has the experience and possibility to hold such an event like Orlando.”
During Pareja’s conference, the always upbeat and optimistic coach alluded to his tournament playing days in Colombia. Pareja starred for Independiente Medellín and Deportivo Cali before moving to New England Revolution and Dallas FC in 1998. “Within the ‘80s and ‘90s, we used to play in my country in long tournaments and almost 60 games a year,” he said. “It was incredible. When I remember that, it was Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday and on and on.” Pareja added about MLS players, “I think players are capable to perform three times a week with no problem. If a player is not ready, it’s an opportunity for other players to see minutes and for a coach to use his whole roster.”
Former Rapids’ MLS Championship team head coach and current first-year Nashville SC skipper, Gary Smith, told the Associated Press, “I think the league is still at a stage, from what I understand, where this particular idea is something that they have in mind and are trying to get feedback from teams about as to what it could look like and how it could work.” He continued, “personally, again, we’re in uncharted territory here. I certainly, along with probably most other people, have never seen anything like it before. So therefore, you have to be a little bit more open-minded about what a season could look like.”
Not even a Disney crystal ball can predict if the 2020 MLS season will rebound, and if so, in what shape and format. In the meantime, Rapids and Burgundy Wave faithful, maintain your stellar patience, social distancing, and colorful mask wearing. Expect an announcement shortly about the ‘next-steps,’ this time coming from the MLS Commissioner himself.