- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Major League Soccer is resuming its season amid the coronavirus pandemic on July 8 with a World Cup-style tournament in Florida that won’t include fans in the stands.

The league’s 26 teams will be divided into six groups for the opening round of the tournament at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports complex at Walt Disney World.

Sixteen teams will advance to the knockout round, with the winner earning a spot in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League. The group matches will count toward the regular season, the league said.

Teams had played just two games to start the season when the league suspended play March 12 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While in Florida, players will be sequestered in a resort and be subject to a rigorous testing protocol. Each team will have three group matches, played over 16 consecutive days with multiple games a day. Games will be played in the morning and the evening to avoid the heat.

Players will be tested for COVID-19 before they leave for Orlando and when they arrive, as well as during the competition. Staffs will also be tested.

Commissioner Don Garber noted on a conference call with reporters Wednesday that it will be impossible to test everyone who might come in contact with players, like hotel staffs.

“We do need to manage social distancing. We will have that in place. We will need to manage facemasks and other PPE. For anybody that is involved in this project, we will have sanitizing and other things like temperature checks and the like for those that are involved in hotels and involved in housekeeping and the like. But those are not our employees,” Garber said. “We’re confident, having gone through this protocol, both with our own infectious disease doctor but also in sharing that with the MLSPA’s infectious disease adviser, and also with the state authorities.”

Garber could not say whether a certain number of positive tests would stop the tournament.

Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan remained concerned, especially when it comes to hotel staffs. Florida continues to see rising COVID-19 cases.

“That’s certainly a question because there’s obviously going to be a lot of hotel staff that are coming and going. The parks are going to be open. You know, somebody can easily be asymptomatic, not realize they have it, and ultimately be what some officials have described as being called the superspreader,” Guzan said. “We don’t know. And so, I guess we’re all taking this leap of faith.”

The announcement of the tournament comes a week after the league and its players reached an agreement on a contract that runs through 2025, clearing the way for the event.

The prize pool for the MLS Is Back Tournament is $1.1 million, the league said.

The title match will be played Aug. 11.

Following the tournament, teams will likely resume the season in their home markets. It was unclear whether those games would be played with fans in the stadiums.

Teams can begin arriving in Florida for training on June 24. Those that have already been training must arrive no later than seven days before their first match.

The draw for the group stage is set for Thursday. As hosts, Orlando City will be the top seed in Group A.

Nashville will move to the Eastern Conference for the tournament and the rest of the season.

The tournament will be the first time D.C. United has played since March 7, when they earned their first win of the year over expansion team Inter Miami CF, 2-1. Because the group-stage matches count toward the regular season standings, United (1-1-0, 3 points) will have added motivation to perform well in Orlando.

“Let’s get back to work!” United center back and midfielder Russell Canouse tweeted last week after the MLS Players Association agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement, which paved the way for next month’s return to play.

United began voluntary, small-group training sessions at Audi Field on June 4 after receiving clearance from local government officials. Their practices began under strict health and safety guidelines, including social distancing of at least 10 feet between players, to mitigate potential transmission of COVID-19.

The club looks much different in 2020 than in recent seasons following the departure of Wayne Rooney, their flashy 2018 signing from England, last offseason. United will also have to contend without Paul Arriola this year after the U.S. men’s national team midfielder partially tore his ACL in the preseason.

⦁ Adam Zielonka contributed to this report.

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