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MLS is Back + Dos Santos on the Challenges of a Unique Format

How do the Whitecaps feel about the return to play plan?

SOCCER: JUL 17 MLS - Vancouver Whitecaps at New England Revolution Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On Wednesday morning, Major League Soccer officially announced its Orlando tournament format as well as the desire to return to play in home markets following the completion of the tournament. After the conclusion of collective bargaining talks last week, it was only a matter of time before details of the tournament were confirmed. But now, MLS fans in every market will have matches to look forwards to starting on July 8th.

I won’t elaborate on all the details here, but there are some important things to note for both Vancouver Whitecaps fans and general sports observers in the time of COVID-19. If you haven’t seen the details already, you can check out the link below.

First off, only the three group stage matches will count towards the MLS regular season. The following knockout tournament games will be played for a CONCACAF Champions League spot, as well as some additional prize money.

While I’m not going to say that a Champions league spot, or pride for that matter are irrelevant, I do think that context matters a great deal in sports. It’s not just about the games being played, it should also be about “why we care” or “why it matters” to both players and supporters.

The knockout portion of this tournament can’t help but feel devoid of that. Every other league that has returned, or is planning to return, has come back with games that are part of a somewhat normal course of play. The MLS has chosen to take a different route, and while that’s exciting (kind of), I’m concerned that the matches won’t feel important or consequential in any way – and that this could take away from the product, and the global impression of MLS.

The second issue is one of safety. The MLS has chosen to make their bed in Florida, and at this point, there’s not much that can be done about that. But beyond this issue, it doesn’t sound like the league has thought through a comprehensive plan on how to deal with individuals within their “bubble” testing positive.

While there is still some time to iron out these details, it does feel as though the league has put the cart somewhat before the horse in order to be the first North American league to return to play. In Don Garber’s media availability this morning, there was a heavy emphasis on placating sponsorship partners, and this got more screen time than questions concerning health and safety protocols.

We are likely all aware of the MLS’ precarious financial situation, but this tournament feels like a band-aid solution rather than a constructive way to fix the league’s business model in the long run.

The one positive I can see out of this is that it presents an opportunity for MLS to gain a bigger viewership both locally and on the global stage – but again – I only think that happens if the product on the field is compelling in some way. Do casual fans really care about CONCACAF Champions League?

For Marc Dos Santos and the Vancouver Whitecaps, the promise of a Champions League spot is alluring. Dos Santos also explained that his players shouldn’t need added motivation to perform in Orlando.

“We have been prepared now for a while. When I speak to the guys individually, they all have that belief. But the biggest incentive for us is that Champions League spot, especially not knowing what will be next. Our focus as a club and team is solely on what we need to do in Orlando. Because we still don’t know what the time beyond that has to offer.”

In regard to health and safety protocols, Dos Santos also added his thoughts.

“At the end of the day, the environment that is going to be provided there is going to be as secure as possible for a tournament like that. You’re always at risk, even going to the grocery store, but I think what’s going to happen in Orlando will put the players and coaches in a position that is secure.”

As more details continue to roll out, be sure to check in on Eighty Six Forever, as well as the Third Sub Podcast, for all the latest news and reactions.

What do you think of the format? Are you excited to watch the Caps play matches, even if it’s from afar? Let us know in the comments!