A safe return or Mickey Mouse planning?

Major League Soccer is pressing ahead with its ‘Orlando Plan’ for a return to soccer over the summer. While details are beginning to emerge, we wonder will this be a triumphant return of soccer, or something akin to a Disney straight-to-video sequel that no-one remembers, like George of the Jungle 2?

The Washington Post and The Athletic have gradually obtained more information on the plan which would see all 26 teams relocate to Walt Disney World for around 10 weeks as early as June 1st. Teams and support staff would stay at the Coronado Springs Resort with games and training held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex.

Under the details of the plan, which was reported by Jeff Reuter and Pablo Maurer of The Athletic, individual training would begin on June 1st with a ramp up to small group sessions a week later. Full team practices would occupy the final two weeks of June before moving onward to a resumption of play as early as July 3rd.

FC Dallas head coach Luchi Gonzalez has trodden carefully around the topic of this summer magic at Disney. On his weekly show on 105.3 The Fan last week, Gonzalez was asked point-blank if it was happening and answered by talking about accepting a challenge if it came. For those not versed in Luchi-whispering, that means yes.

On his weekly conference call this week, our own Buzz Carrick asked about the idea and here’s what Luchi said.

“I know nothing’s final. I know owners, head coaches, technical leaders, had multiple meetings with the league, and it seems like a lot of questions have been answered, or continued to be answered. I know there’s progress with the players in the league as well, and I believe that’s one of the last steps in this.”

Luchi Gonzalez

The last step that Luchi mentions appears to be one of the larger steps as the MLS Players’ Association has submitted over 100 questions to MLS in an effort to poke holes in any areas that may not be in the players’ best interests.

The association and the league have yet to agree on a deal on potential pay relief during the pandemic, which gets further confused if teams return to playing and making money.

The enforced stoppage has also held up the ratification of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement which becomes all the more significant now that MLS can use that as leverage in getting the players to Orlando.

At the core of it is money. MLS and its owners want broadcast revenue having missed out on income over the previous two months while continuing to pay player salaries. MLS’ broadcast partner, ESPN, is owned by Disney, whose resorts are currently not making money while closed.

The State of Florida has also been eager for live sports and entertainment, and the money it brings. Wrestling organizations WWE and AEW have both resumed live shows in Orlando and Jacksonville without fans attending. UFC has held three events in Jacksonville over the past two weeks. While we’re now talking about the possibility of live sports being allowed to return in Texas, that discussion has long since passed in Florida.

The working plan would see four groups drawn at random with one seeded team in each. Atlanta United as US Open Cup winners, Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC as the two conference champions, and Orlando City as hosts. The top two teams from each group would play out in a knockout phase.

An abbreviated MLS season would follow in the fall culminating with up to nine teams from each conference making the playoffs. The Athletic report mentioned that Nashville will become an Eastern Conference team to give both conferences an even number, and that inter-conference games would not take place for the remainder of 2020.

Even stepping away from MLS, money is the driving force behind any sport returning to play. One of our London connections, the English Football League, is caught in a tale of two critters. The EFL has frozen League One and League Two while attempting to revive the Championship. The EFL’s TV contracts depend on the Championship rather than its other two leagues. Club’s finances are also a larger concern in the English second tier.

Luton Town – so dear to my heart – are fighting for the right to try and make a miracle run to avoid a relegation that would cost millions. At the other end of the table, we know the value of promotion to join the heavyweights in the Premier League is worth in excess of $200,000,000 and all 24 teams could still mathematically make the promotion playoffs if the final nine games are played.

Don Garber and MLS aren’t villains for wanting to recoup lost income. If anything it’s a valiant attempt to find a solution that appeases its investors, ensures players are paid, and that fans can have the sport back. We’ve seen strong numbers from FS1’s presentation of Bundesliga despite the broadcaster opting not to have a pre or post-game show, or even any kind of programming at half time as they count down the weeks until ESPN takes over the rights to German soccer in the US. A well produced MLS tournament in a world without much live soccer could go a long way to enlighten the ‘Eurosnobs’ and earn their dollars.

Before we bid bon voyage to the Huntsmen, there are legitimate concerns. Some of MLS’ top stars including Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez and Carlos Vela have expressed unease at the idea of resuming play. Vela’s wife is expecting the couple’s second child and any plan would see the pair separated for over two months.

Here in Dallas, Bressan became a father for the first time this past week. Not only would the budding superdad be forced to be away from his new family for an extended period, but it leaves more questions once the players are homeward bound. Would there be a post-tournament quarantine either in Florida or the Dallas market and what steps would ensure the safety of his family while they would be in a more at-risk category for the novel Coronavirus?

If those players are given the option of skipping the tournament, they need to consider whether there’s a financial penalty. The clubs also need to consider their own depth. There’s a significant loss of appeal if Bob Bradley says ‘Follow me boys‘ and Vela says no.

There’s also an extra strain on the bodies of other players trying to make up the numbers. Would MLS allow players to be called up from academies or USL teams – potentially going against MLS roster current rules – to ensure that teams could field adequate numbers?

One of the other pressing issues from the player side is while the game plan is to shut teams away from the outside world – and the Covid-19 virus – how does that pertain to the Disney staff who will look after them? Will they also be forced to be away from their families for ten weeks for far less pay than the average soccer player? If not, how can MLS and Disney effectively ensure player well being?

On that same note, Steven Goff reported on a possible NWSL tournament where teams in the worst affected markets would fly in early to quarantine.

If the same were to happen in MLS’ plan, those teams would need to have been in Orlando this week to fit in a two-week quarantine prior to the proposed June 1st start. Anything that eats into that training period just serves as a huge competitive disadvantage at best or an increased risk for the overall group at worst.

Then there are the physical risks associated with what would effectively be a two-week preseason ahead of a minimum of five games in four weeks. Plus the mental effects of being shut away from the world for an extended period. There also seems to be a significant logistical concern.

FC Dallas is currently holding individual workouts using six of the 17 fields at Toyota Soccer Center to work within the current mandate from MLS. ESPN Wide World of Sports only has 13 fields that would need to be shared between 26 teams, each bringing up to 30 players.

While the plan involves three kick-off times for games, it seems like practices at least in the first two stages will result in a midnight madness type situation. A similar story exists with gym facilities either in the complex or at the resort and could be complicated further if the NBA joins MLS there.

A lot of questions remain on this incredible journey and how it affects the season itself. The games in Orlando will count towards the season in some fashion but we don’t know how. The situation remains fluid as MLS and the MLSPA are set to resume talks over the weekend.

While we’re all clamoring for the return of MLS and the chance to be fun and fancy free with Tex Hooper at Toyota Stadium, the reality is that 2020 is will go down as a black hole in both the league and sport’s history as well as a true test of supporters’ iron will.

The cities of Washington D.C. and LA have both ruled out any attended sport for the remainder of the year and it seems a far off place where fans will be allowed to attend games in any MLS stadium even as some states open up.

Even that begs a question of money as MLS teams have released noncommittal statements to fans asking whether they will be refunded for season tickets or if next season will be no deposit, no return of funds.

Still, there’s never a dull moment in the greatest game ever played. And that is the 27th and final Disney movie title!

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