By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Jul 1, 2020) US Soccer Players - First, every plan to hold professional sporting events during a global pandemic is risky. No plan is airtight to the point of certainty. As the country and the world struggle to contain a disease that is stretching healthcare to its breaking point, pro sports are in an interesting situation. It doesn't take much to argue for other things being more important, yet here we are.
Following the lead of leagues in Europe rather than North America, it's the USL Championship with the most ambitious plan to date. Rather than moving all of their teams to one place, the USL is returning to its home markets on July 11. There are a few obvious reasons for making that choice.
The first is the preference for playing at home, something shared by the leagues opting for hubs. Unfortunately for pro sports, that presents a list of issues that are tough to overcome. Onto reason number two. With 35 active teams for 2020, there is no single location that can provide both the fields necessary to hold a single-hub tournament with the accommodations required to house the players and staff for 35 teams. The USL also lacks a TV partner willing to invest in such an undertaking.
As clubs deal with the loss of revenue from lack of home dates, the financial crunch plays an oversized role in dictating how USL approaches getting back on the field. Not playing games this summer never appeared to be an option.
Instead, the USL Championship came up with a geographically-based group format that will feed into a postseason tournament. The size of the league and the spread of its teams were a strength in putting together the plan.
There will be complications. Less than two weeks from the start date, the USL doesn't have a publicly available schedule. Deciding to play games in-market is one thing. Adhering to local and state health requirements to pull them off is another. COVID-19 restrictions are a patchwork of various laws, regulations, and guidelines, making each game on the schedule a matter of discussion with authorities.
USL plans for 16 regular-season games per club. Five groups will have four teams, while three others will have five teams. Teams will play 12 games in-group, though the league is making adjustments for teams that played during the abbreviated start to the campaign. Games played before the shutdown will count towards a regular-season total. Teams will play four games against teams outside of their group, but still in their general geographic area.
That's the plan, anyway. Limiting travel is smart, not just because of the costs but because it will help teams manage their exposure to the general public. The league will mainly rely on buses. That's a nuisance for players used to air travel, but better for their health and safety.
One twist in the planning is Louisville City. The club is opening its new stadium on July 12 with fans in the building. Kentucky governor Andy Beshear approved 50% capacity for stadium events last week, a surprise to Louisville City officials who were planning for 25-30% of the stadium to be open. The club might not be able to get the 7,652 fans permitted by the guidelines into the building because of social distancing concerns, but they plan to take advantage of whatever is allowable.
Lynn Family Stadium will also get national television treatment. ESPN2 will broadcast the game, one of many USL Championship matches that will move to the cable outlet from their original slot on ESPN's streaming service, ESPN+. It's not the same commitment the network is showing to the MLS is Back tournament, but it is making additional eyeballs available to the Championship.
"The time has arrived, and we are ecstatic to finally open Lynn Family Stadium," Louisville City president Brad Estes. "So much time, effort and support has gone into making this idea of professional soccer a reality in Louisville, and we look forward to celebrating our city on July 12. We wish we could pack the stands with 15,000, but those who can't watch in person will be treated to a great broadcast."
It's certainly worth wondering why this makes sense during a pandemic and so early in the USL Championship experiment. Like everything else right now, this is an experiment. Restarting the season carries the same basic risks as all the plans to get games going in North American pro sports.
Picking out a favorite to take home the modified championship is of almost secondary concern. Over the next week, clubs will ramp up to full fitness in a bid to be ready for the games. MLS affiliated teams will have difficult roster choices to make. Las Vegas will play under a new manager, Frank Yallop, only named to take over for Eric Wynalda in the last week. Most games will happen without fans in the stands, some could have a sprinkling. The soccer will be strange, but at least it will be soccer.
The USL Championship plan is ambitious, if only because it has more moving parts than the NWSL and MLS approaches. The league's large number of teams prevented it from putting together a tournament in a controlled environment. It also gave the league the freedom to put together something closer to what everybody wants.
More From Jason Davis:
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- MLS is Back but do the Florida teams have an advantage?
- Kevin Durant, the Union, and MLS celebrity
Logo courtesy of USL