MLB owners have sucked up almost all of the oxygen for those trying to be greedy shits, so you might not have known MLS owners attempted a lot of the same stuff. They went even one step further than their MLB counterparts, threatening to lockout MLS players during a pandemic, which would have had the small side-effect of taking away players’ health care. Somehow, the league and its players found a way out of that ditch at the 11th hour and came to an agreement. The scars, however, will take a little longer to heal.
So there will be a special Orlando tournament for MLS, in a make-good/ass-kiss to ESPN, as it will be held at their parent company’s complex/resort. What this tournament exactly is no one can tell you for sure, other than being simply sport as TV product. It’s not a reforming of the MLS season. It will not end with the MLS Cup being presented. It’s simply there to get MLS on TV screens during the pandemic shutdown.
The group games will count toward the regular MLS season, though they haven’t said when and what that will be. It’ll just be “later.”
The tournament comes with the same issues that a 50-game MLB season would. It’s not going to feel real to its fans. It’s just there. It’s not part of any months-long narrative that people are used to, be it for one team or the whole league. It’s more game-show than season. It’ll be on screens and maybe ESPN will feel slightly better about its partnership with the league. But really, what kind of gains are those for a league that struggles with ratings as it is? Maybe they feel it’ll be a nice introduction to attract new fans who have little else to watch, but that’s a stretch. Shoehorning group stage results into regular season standings feels like a duct-tape solution.
Another aspect is that a product in Orlando in late July and August has a high probability of suckage. Soccer is not a sport that handles heat and humidity well. Watching players stepping on their tongues by the 20th minute isn’t really a great advertisement for the sport (which is why some games will start at 9 a.m. and 9:30 p.m.). It’s an incredibly slow version of a sport that a lot of people already think is too slow. And it’s going to look even more weird or even amateurish to people watching from home because it won’t be played in just an empty stadium they might recognize. It’ll look like it’s on a really well-kept high school field. Those optics matter. The NBA has enough of a legacy and cachet to play games in an empty, rec-league looking gym. Does MLS?
While it is particularly ghoulish to criticize a league for not taking advantage of a global pandemic to further its interests, this is also the world of sports. Leagues and owners would make kittens sit through a three-day Dave Matthews Band fest if they thought it would get them more money. And MLS missed an opportunity to move its schedule to a fall-spring type and put it in line with the European soccer schedule.
This has been suggested to the MLS for years, and the league has always vehemently opposed it. It’s biggest fear is putting games up against both the NFL and college football, while thinking the more barren months of the summer give it a better platform. After all, only baseball is played during the bulk of the MLS season.
Except all that is out the window now. While the NBA may float the idea of trying to cram an 82-game schedule into four months to try and get back on its normal schedule, what’s more likely is that both the NBA and NHL will be playing into July for a couple more years after this one.
Think about it. If neither league can start the ’20-’21 season before Jan 1, they’re likely to be playing deep into next July and maybe even August again. It’s hard to see how they could start a ’21-’22 season much before Thanksgiving, if at all. The only answer is to either cram its normal schedule into a window the respective players’ unions would never go for, or shorten a season. But with all the money all the leagues are going to lose due to the coronavirus, they’re not going to voluntarily chalk off any games they don’t have to. Every game is a chance to claw back some money, especially by that point we have to hope fans will be allowed back.
A restarted MLS season in the fall would probably find no NBA or NHL anywhere on the calendar. MLS could have had all the midweeks and Friday and Saturday nights it wanted from September-November or December. That also might have given it more time to come up with a more comprehensive safety and health plan than what it has now, which amounts to Han Solo screaming don’t tell them the odds.
If the MLS had then taken the same winter break you find in Germany or Scandinavia or Eastern Europe and started up again in the spring, it could fit in its playoffs before the NBA’s or NHL’s even start. Again, with a start on or around Jan. 1, neither hockey nor basketball is going to find it easy to start its playoffs before June 1. MLS could have run from the end of February to Memorial Day and gotten wrapped up before those leagues got to their business ends.
In addition, with European leagues and their delays, it’s likely their ’20-’21 seasons won’t start before October or later. MLS could have been the only meaningful soccer for its fans on television anywhere for weeks in the fall.
The benefits of running along with the European calendar are numerous. One, it gives a host of soccer fans the same calendar they’re already used to. Second, it lines up transfer windows so that European stars aren’t joining up midway through the season and other players aren’t hightailing it over to Europe in the middle of campaigns to start European seasons.
Third, it means MLS would no longer have to weave its seasons around or through major international tournaments in the summer, such as the World Cup or Euros (and yes, the Qatar Winter World Cup is another wrench in all this but I’m already dizzy so shove it). It wouldn’t have to jam its playoffs around FIFA windows either, which have always been a problem in November.
Fourth, it would give the league more legitimacy in the soccer world at large, making it more attractive for transfers and loans instead of being seen as a retirement in the sun for fading stars.
Yes, MLS would be going on at the same time as football. But MLS doesn’t compete with football in any meaningful way. It could find a regular slot for its games that fans could come to count on, and really the only thing they can’t do is put them on Sundays. There’s room enough the rest of the week.
While MLS would claim that gates would suffer in the north for games in November or even December or February, how much more unpleasant is that then sitting outside in July in Orlando or Houston or Miami? And unlike then, the product doesn’t really suffer because of the cold (everyone loves an orange ball anyway!).
But no. MLS will get this dry heave of a tournament on TV screens, and claim victory. Like a lot of the things the league does, it missed what it really could have had.