By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 30, 2020) US Soccer Players – It was supposed to be different. Major League Soccer was supposed to celebrate its 25th season in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic changed those plans. Instead of celebrating a landmark campaign for a league that was never guaranteed more than a few years of existence back when it launched in 1996, MLS spent the majority of the year just working to have a season at all. There was denial. There was anger. We’re still waiting on acceptance.
That’s quite a comedown from what was supposed to be a year highlighting Major League Soccer’s 25-year history while it experiences an explosion in expansion and importance. The business of MLS dictated plenty about its response to the theft of the celebration. It wasn’t so much missing out on blowing its own horn that affected the league’s decision-making as it was the dramatic effects of the pandemic, but the two are inextricably linked.
Back in March, MLS followed the lead of the NBA in shutting down following two weeks of matches. The league’s long hibernation was led by guidance from infectious disease experts and informed by public policy action across the country. By no means did MLS like it, but the league did what was responsible.
It looked for a time like MLS skipped over the initial stage of grief, denial. The league acknowledged the problem facing it and the world and stepped aside, the better to avoid risk to players, fans, and team staff. Sometimes, there are more important things than soccer.
As the stoppage dragged on and a haphazard response across the United States and Canada prevented a defined singular moment for resuming play, the league entered the denial phase. MLS didn’t want to sit around and wait for the all-clear. It wanted to get back to what it does. Beyond the pressure to play games with or without fans, MLS had broadcast partners it needed to keep happy.
By June, MLS was working on a plan. Step one was a contentious negotiation to get the MLS Players Association to accept a pay decrease. Step two was a month-long World Cup-style tournament in Orlando. The event was a massive undertaking that required buying out a resort at the Wide World of Sports campus at Walt Disney World to create a bubble and then staging the entirety of the tournament in isolation.
Is there a term for denial that leads to moderate success? If there is, it applies to MLS Is Back. Sure, the tournament lost two teams due to positive tests, but the games continued. It was soccer, but with an apocalyptic vibe.
By the end of MLS Is Back, the league was fully in the bargaining phase. The season wasn’t a loss. Giving up on 2020 post-Orlando wasn’t an option. A plan took shape for a 23 game season with a regional schedule. If everything went according to that plan, a champion crowned in December would be legitimate.
Post-MLS Cup and the Columbus Crew’s uplifting victory, it’s easy to forget how much went wrong during the return to in-market games for the league. Despite COVID-19 numbers worsening across the country, MLS charged forward with a schedule that was beset regularly by cancellations and postponements.
Simply finishing out what passed for a season in 2020 doesn’t wash away the questions pertinent at the time about the wisdom of playing. Let’s not forget that the Colorado Rapids missed an entire month’s worth of games due to the virus. That threw the rest of the Western Conference schedule out of whack in the process.
If a league can be depressed, this was the stage at which MLS went through its darkest period. The luster of pulling off MLS Is Back was long gone. The league bumbled and stumbled its way to the finish line. It took weeks for the league to officially decide that there was no way to make-up all the games. Instead, points-per-game would determine playoff places. Because of border restrictions, the three Canadian clubs had to relocate to the US for the balance of the schedule.
The initial rush of happiness that came from simply playing soccer in soccer stadiums again gave way to the doldrums of empty stadiums and decimated rosters. MLS made it to the playoffs, and they delivered. Even without full stadiums, the energy in games from coast-to-coast enthralled fans watching from home. The league put on at least one disastrous game from an officiating perspective but otherwise managed to squeeze intrigue out of the process.
When the playoffs concluded with the Crew’s win over the Sounders, it made for a good narrative. Columbus was the team nearly relocated to Austin and the MLS Cup win rewarded for their dedication a fan base that did more than anyone to ensure that Columbus retained the team. When the story is as good as that, the circumstances don’t matter quite as much.
Acceptance was here. Or the appearance of acceptance. MLS could do nothing more than move forward, working to put 2020 behind it as it prepared for 2021. Well, except it’s still 2020, and the league decided it wasn’t done. On Tuesday, the news broke that the league would enforce a force majeure clause added to the collective bargaining agreement during June’s redo.
As always, money is the issue. MLS commissioner Don Garber claimed MLS lost $1 billion in 2020. The MLS Players Association feels its membership has already given up more than enough, something it made clear earlier this month. Now, the story for 2021 is the same as it was this time last season. That means another countdown for a league that seems unable to avoid reintroducing labor problems.
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Logo courtesy of the MLSPA