By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Sep 18, 2020) US Soccer Players – Major League Soccer in 2020 is what you get when you take a league built to ensure parity and throw the logistical nightmare of an international pandemic on top of it. Add in rampant wildfires and the requisite air quality issues they bring. The recent returns for the top professional soccer competition in the United States and Canada might as well be random noise.
We’ve chronicled the uncertainty of lineups from game-to-game during this portion of the league’s revised season. With match days coming three-to-a-week, coaches are reaching down their benches like never before. The crush of matches and the difficulty of away trips exacerbated by same-day travel makes it tough for a club with a talent advantage to leverage it every time it steps on the field.
It’s easy to forget about the context as we process the scores and consider team performances. Match results tend to happen in a vacuum of the mind, with our analysis turning on preconceived notions, home-field advantage, injuries, and a host of other factors.
There are two ways to handle just how strange this year is. Ignore variables and forge ahead, leaving it up to others to contextualize what’s happening, or simply throw up the proverbial hands and stop trying. The arguments for why it’s nearly impossible to handicap the rest of the season are myriad. Nothing is certain in the world of the pandemic, including which MLS teams are actually good. So why bother?
We know that sports are as much about the time between the games as they are about the game themselves. Each season is a story, told chapter by chapter. Without the bicker, banter, and business of the intervening days between matches, the whole thing loses its intrigue.
If we’re going to make collective allowances for the strange season unfolding before us, it’s at least helpful that every club is dealing with the same difficult conditions. Every club is playing in front of no or few fans. Every club must travel to away matches the day of the game. Every team has to face the same opponent repeatedly. That makes it easier to treat the season as “fair” and, therefore, legitimate.
The legitimacy of the 2020 season remains in question, even as we avoid asking. New developments, ones that upend the “fairness” of the campaign, further threaten the validity of Major League Soccer’s efforts to play the schedule.
Last week, the league announced “Phase 2” of its regular season schedule. Rather, MLS announced “phase one” of “Phase 2,” as it was only able to plan three matches for each of its 26 members teams. The expectation ahead of the news release was that MLS would provide a revised schedule for 12 regular season games for each team, bringing up the total for the season to a respectable 28.
What we got instead was a tacit admission that the COVID-19 pandemic is a debilitating problem for a soccer league that plays across an international border. While travel restrictions in the United States are relatively modest and staying within a manageable geographic region prevents most issues, moving teams in and out of Canada is still complicated. The home country of three MLS teams requires a 14-day quarantine period when entering, regardless of any testing.
For Phase 1, MLS chose to isolate Toronto FC, the Montreal Impact, and the Vancouver Whitecaps and schedule them to a three-team rotation of games. Toronto has faced both of its Canadian rivals three times. Despite the fact that the Reds sit in 2nd-place in the Eastern Conference behind Columbus, it’s difficult to know how good they actually are. Neither Montreal, 5th in the East, nor Vancouver, 11th in the West, look like championship contenders.
Because of the pressing need to get the Canadian clubs games against other teams, Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver will play home games in the United States. After visits to Salt Lake City and Los Angeles to face LAFC, the Whitecaps will head to Portland to be the home team in a game against the Timbers.
Montreal will actually start its three-game US swing as the nominal home side in a game against the Union at Red Bull Arena. The Impact will then play two road games against the Revolution in New England and the Red Bulls also at Red Bull Arena.
Toronto is the only team out of the Canadian trio that won’t play a home game in another MLS team’s venue. The Reds will visit DC United and NYCFC (a club playing its home matches at Red Bull Arena) before hosting the Columbus Crew at Rentschler Field in West Hartford, Connecticut.
By limiting this released portion of the schedule to three games, the league is kicking the can down the road. They’re hoping that the restrictions on travel will ease and teams will be able to cross the border. If there is no resolution on that front, MLS may have to keep the Canadian teams in the US and add more games in alternate venues.
Without delving too far into the world of epidemiology, a quick resolution to the travel issues seems doubtful. The clock is ticking. Though Toronto president Bill Manning made some hopeful comments about the club’s efforts to work with the government of Canada on a solution, nothing to this point indicates that the government is likely to provide special dispensation for pro sports teams.
This all brings us back to the legitimacy of the season. It’s possible, perhaps even probable, that one or more of the Canadian teams will miss the playoffs. Even if they do get into the expanded field, their final position in the table is bound to be affected by the ad hoc 2020 schedule.
Those things that happen in the normal course of a season, poor form, injuries, low attendance, are accepted parts of the game. If a team fails because of them, only bad luck or their own mistakes are to blame.
That’s not how 2020 feels at all. The alternative to playing games under unfair conditions is to not play games at all. That reality that seems worse than the one we’re living. As Phase 2 begins and the field tilts decidedly against a portion of the league, it’s worth asking. When all of this is over, how will we feel about what just happened?
More From Jason Davis:
- American midfielders show their depth in Europe
- The strange situation with LAFC
- McKennie takes another step for American soccer players
- NYCFC and Houston playing under the radar
Photo by Mike Lawrence – ISIPhotos.com