Buoyed by the success of its MLS is Back Tournament and confident of its health and safety plan amid the coronavirus pandemic, Major League Soccer will resume its 2020 regular season with teams playing in their home cities.
The league's 26 franchises will each play 18 games, although FC Dallas and Nashville SC will play an additional three games and do so against each other. Because of COVID-19 cases, both teams were forced to withdraw from the MLS is Back Tournament just before it started early last month at the Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando, Florida.
The tournament final between Orlando City and the Portland Timbers at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex is Tuesday night, and the regular season resumes the next night as Dallas hosts Nashville at 8:30 EDT. The same clubs will play the second match of the MLS schedule, meeting at the same time and place on Sunday, Aug. 16, and their third match will be played in Nashville a date not yet determined.
Nashville has played just twice in its debut season — and lost both, 2-1 to visiting Atlanta United FC on Feb. 29 and 1-0 at Portland on March — and is not scheduled for a home match until Aug. 30 against Inter Miami CF, the other expansion team for this MLS 25th anniversary season.
"Having suffered the heartache of the Orlando tournament, it's wonderful to be preparing for our first game in five months," Nashville coach Gary Smith said in a release. "The players and staff are excited to be competing again, and we would all like nothing more than to get into a rhythm of games to promote the team development we have all missed."
The first phase of the MLS schedule released Saturday runs through mid-September, and a majority of games will be played without fans present because of local regulations. Teams will be subject to a rigorous testing protocol and will use charter flights or buses.
For the Nashville-Dallas matches, Toyota Stadium will be opened for a maximum 5,110 fans, and all must wear masks.
The league's teams will play six games in phase one of the season's return, three home and three away. MLS plans to release the rest of the schedule in early September for a regular season that will finish on Nov. 8, setting up the 18-team playoffs that will culminate in a championship match on Dec. 14.
"We believe we have a good plan, we believe our players and our staff are focused on adhering to our protocols, and if we're able to do that, we ought to be able to get our games in," MLS commissioner Don Garber said Saturday during a conference call. "And if we can't do that in a way that's safe and one that's ensuring the health of our players, we'll have to address it."
MLS continues to work with the Canadian teams — the Montreal Impact, Toronto FC and Vancouver Whitecaps FC — because of travel restrictions but did not include them in the first phase of the schedule.
The plan comes as coronavirus cases and deaths mount across the United States. Nearly 5 million people have contracted COVID-19 and 161,000 have died in the country.
"We understand that getting back to play is going to have some challenges. We're aware of those challenges, we're prepared for it, we are understanding that it's not going to be easy," Garber said. "We know that we might have issues that are going to disrupt us and might even force us to postpone games. We're aware of the need to be flexible, we're aware that we are entering a new normal for our industry."
The monthlong MLS is Back Tournament has been played without fans, and players and team personnel have been sequestered in two Disney resorts for the duration of the event, which started July 8. The group stage matches counted toward the standings that will determine playoff participants.
MLS suspended the season March 12 because of the pandemic after teams had played two games each, and it appeared the Florida tournament might be derailed at the start when Dallas and Nashville had to drop out. However, apart from those two teams there have been only two confirmed positive tests: one for Sporting Kansas City and one for the Columbus Crew.