The USL, the country’s second-division soccer league, canceled its championship game yesterday between the Tampa Bay Rowdies and Phoenix Rising, due to multiple players and staff on Tampa Bay testing positive for COVID-19. The decision was made because of the amount of time and the amount of players that would have to quarantine and then train back up to be prepared to play. Both teams were declared conference champions.
Which makes one wonder just how MLS, or even the NFL, think they’re going to be able to navigate the waters of a second wave of the virus to successfully and safely complete their seasons and playoffs.
MLS is the league currently in the crosshairs, as just this weekend the league had to postpone or outright cancel two games on its slate. LAFC and San Jose was pushed back due to positive tests on LAFC (if they can find a date). Minnesota United’s game with Sporting KC was simply wiped off the schedule after a second Minnesota player tested positive, due to Minnesota already having two games left this week, thanks to having a previous game postponed for COVID reasons.
MLS is determined to finish the season next Sunday on its “Decision Day” and has already announced that it will use points-per-game to determine the standings, thanks to not every team being able to play 23 games.
You may wonder why MLS is scheduling its biggest regular season day against the NFL, in yet another stroke of marketing genius by the league. Thanks to the needed midweek fixtures to finish up, Friday night isn’t really available and the international break after it rules out Monday night. Like the NFL, MLS is reluctant to move its championship game, currently set for December 12.
MLS is not holding its playoffs, starting in the third week of November, in a bubble. While having greater resources, and much more on the line than USL, it’s hard to see how they’re going to navigate through the postseason without any trouble. It’s not clear when exactly either Minnesota or LAFC will get back on the field, but the real question is what happens if there are positive tests during the playoffs? It’s pretty obvious there will be. Will teams be told to forge ahead with players who have only tested negative? Will they try and rearrange the schedule to give teams four or five days to return negative tests after positive ones?
As of now, the playoffs won’t begin until the weekend of November 21st, thanks to the international break. That gives the league six possible match-dates to finish off five rounds, if they use midweek and weekend slots (Eastern conference play-in round, conference quarters, semis, final, and then the final). They have one slot of leeway for any postponements. Teams can’t miss a whole week due to positive tests, essentially. But we’ve already seen teams do that in the regular season.
Unlike USL, MLS has TV contracts to adhere to. Should the league face the same crisis before its final as USL did, there’s almost no chance it would be canceled or even moved back. So how safe can it really be?
With its bigger rosters, the NFL has a little more flexibility, but also can’t use multiple games per week to make up lost games. The NFL also only has the bye week between the conference championships and the Super Bowl as a flex for what it might need to make up.
With COVID cases skyrocketing all over the country, it is hard to fathom either league will get through it unscathed, especially as neither will be in a bubble. As Justin Turner proved, even a bubble isn’t always sufficient. There certainly seem to be a lot of rocky seas ahead.