By Luis Bueno – RIVERSIDE, CA (Jul 8, 2020) US Soccer Players - Major League Soccer has officially returned with the MLS Is Back Tournament underway this week. There are plenty of reminders that this is far from an ideal return to the playing fields. All games will be in Orlando with teams sequestered and only leaving their hotels to play and train. The matches will feature no supporters and start at odd times due to Florida's heat and humidity.
The biggest individual reminder that this is not the anticipated return many had hoped for will be the absence of LAFC star Carlos Vela. The league's reigning Most Valuable Player remained home. Vela's wife is pregnant, and he opted to skip the tournament and put family first.
Minus Vela, LAFC is still a strong team needing to meet high expectations. It may seem that way given Vela's 34 goals a year ago. Vela also contributed 15 assists in his spectacular campaign. The year before, Vela contributed 14 goals and 13 assists in what was also a standout season, although the 2019 figures make it seem almost normal.
Not having the best player in the league at their disposal will force others to step up in Vela's absence. LAFC has a strong supporting cast, even though the team did not make any major offseason acquisitions. Diego Rossi and Brian Rodriguez are likely to pick up the scoring slack, with Rossi now the focus of the attack by default. LAFC coach Bob Bradley has other options, including Adame Diomande, Bradley Wright-Phillips and Andy Najar, the last two newcomers to the team, but none of the three is fit enough to play all 90 minutes.
Still, the team did not tie the league record for most goals in a season by feeding the ball to Vela and watching him go. In two short years of existence, LAFC has become a force in the league and a contender for MLS Cup. With that has come not just the ability to win, but the know how. Bradley preaches a tough mental mindset and hard work, and that will guide the club through this tournament. The system remains in place regardless of the personnel.
Fair enough in these strange circumstances where playing also means isolating at a resort hotel on the other side of the county. Such is a sporting life during a global pandemic. Any person putting health and safety first in this strange summer isn't the problem. With the United States still being hammered by Covid-19 cases and deaths, and Florida in particular one the nation's many hotspots for new infections, Vela's decision is understandable. Professional athletes putting their situation over scheduling speaks directly to that larger question about timing. Vela has the backing of club executives, the coaching staff, and his fellow teammates. While they will not have him available during this next month at a minimum, they will also not hold it against him.
Vela's absence does take some of the luster off the tournament, but MLS is Back is a bit of a mystery in general. Vela is not alone in his decision. Other notable players to opt out include Vancouver's Fredy Montero and Lucas Cavallini along with Minnesota star defender Ike Opara. Then there was the removal of FC Dallas due to a high number of positive tests.
Add to that the scheduling choices. West Coast viewers will be able to watch some of the games live while drinking their morning coffee at 6am Pacific. That schedule gives this tournament a bit of a World Cup feel in terms of watching games at odd hours.
Then there's the tournament scenario. European leagues were able to return to action in a mostly normal way, with teams playing home and away matches at their own stadiums. There have not been fans at the games, but the leagues did not have to completely reinvent itself or change its product to get back to playing.
Here though, the situation is different. European cases have steadily gone down over the last several months while the US seems unable to get the pandemic under reasonable control. Go through the checklist of differences between the situation in Europe and here, but it doesn't address the biggest question for North American pro sports. Is now the appropriate time?
While it seemed strange to have MLS play two games and then completely cease operations, it seems equally as odd to have the league start back up with a global pandemic backdrop. Soccer will resume while government officials and health experts grapple with how to slow the spread while treating the infirmed. The whole thing seems a bit odd in that respect. Perhaps Vela's absence is just the obvious reminder that maybe this tournament did not need to happen.
Luis Bueno is a veteran soccer writer. Follow him on twitter @BuenoSoccer.
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