Major League Soccer has been battling COVID-19 all season. After play was shut down in March two weeks into the 2020 campaign, the league successfully held a tournament in a bubble in Orlando, Florida, with no positive tests once the games began, despite the forced exits of FC Dallas and Nashville SC due to breakouts within their respective squads. But in recent weeks, as teams have settled into playing games mostly in home markets, the vulnerabilities have become more apparent.
Since Sept. 23, 24 players and staff members have had confirmed positive tests for COVID-19, resulting in the postponement of 10 matches. This has occurred even as MLS continued regular testing and mask wearing, as well as taking steps such as same-day travel for visiting teams to limit potential infection and spread.
MLS is by no means the only sport wrestling with positive cases among its teams, their players and staff. Both the NFL and college football have been weathering outbreaks, as well, as evidenced by the Tennessee Titans sustaining 24 cases as of this writing. But for MLS, the challenge remains daunting.
The question now: How much of a shadow will COVID-19 cast on the rest of the season? Can MLS finish out the five or six games that remain for most teams? Or is it destined to have the playoffs interrupted by positive tests and postponements or seeding determined by off-field calculations such as points per game?
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"When we announced that we're returning to play in our markets, we said we would prioritize the health and safety of the players and staff," MLS deputy commissioner and president Mark Abbott told ESPN. "If at any time we thought that we shouldn't move forward with a match, we would postpone it. We recognized that that could happen, and the health and safety protocols that we have were designed to deal with them."
The epicenter of the league's difficulties has been in Colorado, where the Rapids have had 18 confirmed positive tests for COVID-19 -- five players and 13 staff members -- over the past three weeks. The outbreak has resulted in seven of Colorado's games being postponed. Only two of the seven have been rescheduled, and even if the league uses the November international window to reschedule additional Rapids games, there won't be enough time to get all their games in prior to Decision Day on Nov. 8 or the scheduled start of the playoffs on Nov. 20. Other teams will have to deal with an international travel window from Nov. 9 to 17, one that brings fresh concerns about player safety after Seattle forward Raul Ruidiaz contracted COVID-19 while on international duty with Peru this past week.
Colorado is by no means the only team that has been hit with postponements. Last weekend, positive tests by two Columbus Crew staffers, plus one for an Orlando City player, resulted in the postponement of a match between those squads that had been slated for Sunday. The FC Dallas-Minnesota United game scheduled for that same day was postponed after two Loons players tested positive. Minnesota then had Wednesday's game against the Chicago Fire postponed after another Loons player had a "suspected positive" via what's called a rapid point-of-care test, though subsequent tests came back negative.
After publicly stating there was no definite threshold for delaying matches, the postponements have led to a more definitive protocol from MLS. If a team has one case and everyone else tests negative, the game goes on. If there are multiple positives, the game is postponed.
A source with knowledge of the situation told ESPN that MLS isn't budging from its proposed MLS Cup final date of Dec. 12. In practical terms, this has left MLS in the position of likely using points per game to determine positions in the conference standings and, by extension, the playoff qualification and seeding. The approach is similar to what took place in the 2001 season, when the 9/11 terrorist attacks forced the cancellation of the last two weeks of the regular season. While playoff qualification wasn't affected, playoff positioning and the Supporters' Shield were. The now-defunct Miami Fusion claimed the Shield ahead of the Fire, based on having accrued 53 points in 26 games as compared to the Fire's 53 in 27.
That said, the current situation is fluid. One general manager said that first there would be a push "to play as many games as possible" and that points per game would only be used as a last resort. But he acknowledged that avoiding such a scenario would involve pushing back MLS Cup.
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On a conference call with reporters in August, MLS commissioner Don Garber acknowledged that the 2020 campaign would have "a lot of competitive balance issues," though not everyone is on board with that approach. One GM of a Western Conference team called using points per game "challenging, as it takes away the competitive element," and that he was not in favor.
Vancouver CEO Axel Schuster, whose team is clinging to the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, was a bit more philosophical, generally giving MLS high marks for navigating its way through the pandemic. The Whitecaps are also in a position where because the travel between the United States and Canada remains restricted, they're playing their home games in Portland.
"Don't ask somebody from a Canadian team about if everything is balanced and fair!" Schuster said with a chuckle. "I haven't seen my family in a month. So let us not speak if everything is balanced and everything is equal at the end. Was everybody able to perform on the same level as everybody else? No, of course not. But I have never seen a pandemic before. I think that the only thing we can do is to go on and play and find the best solution. And to accept that the world is crazy."
At this point, the league is hoping that come November, there will be playoff games to talk about instead of COVID-19 cases. Pending developments in Minnesota, the Rapids' situation marks the third outbreak among MLS teams this season, following the well-reported situations in Dallas and Nashville that forced both teams to withdraw from the MLS is Back tournament. More than that, it points to the limitations of the league's protocols in terms of how to control an outbreak within a team, especially when it is operating outside of a bubble.
"The devil is in the details," said Dr. Carlos del Rio, a distinguished professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Emory University School of Medicine. "The return to play plan -- as far as testing, screening, monitoring -- made some sense. But you're going to have people that are going to get infected in the community, and I think that's going to create problems. And unless you have an absolute bubble, you're essentially going to be at risk of something like [Colorado] happening."
That leaves plenty of responsibility up to the players to make sure they engage in behavior that maximizes their chances of remaining free of COVID-19. Even that is hard to manage: Real Salt Lake forward Sam Johnson has been a prime example of what not to do, holding a house party on Oct. 4 with upward of 100 guests in attendance that required police intervention. Johnson has since been put under quarantine, and multiple sources told ESPN that both the club and MLS were in the process of terminating his contract.
One MLS player said via text message he was "concerned" about the uptick in cases. "Players have been mostly responsible up to this point. and we are preaching it's up to players to keep themselves safe," he said. Another player added, "We still have to wear masks in and around the facility, but it's always gonna be difficult to monitor guys beyond that." (The MLS Players Association declined to comment for this story.)
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The reality is that players can follow all the protocols to the letter and still get infected. Family members, live-in partners and the community at large can cause the virus to spread. And yet MLS' approach to the campaign remains focused on completion. One change the league has made since returning to home markets is the implementation of the rapid point-of-care test, which is less accurate than the usual polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test but has a turnaround time of minutes as opposed to more than 12 hours. One source with knowledge of the situation said the rapid test was implemented in Minnesota after last week's positive tests so that any spread of the virus would be detected quicker.
Given the way the postponements are trending, is MLS reaching a tipping point in terms of not being able to continue with the campaign?
"I know that [MLS has] done what they could. They tried, they made an effort, they tried to protect the players," said Dr. Abraar Karan, a physician at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital working on COVID-19 response in Massachusetts. "At this point, they have to recognize when they're struggling. And with this type of stuff, when you start to struggle, it's much more likely that things are about to get a lot worse rather than a lot better."
Asked by ESPN about the possibility of the season being canceled, Abbott said, "There is nothing we're seeing that would cause us to think that we won't finish the season."
But Abbott's optimism stands in contrast to what is happening in the U.S. as it relates to the pandemic, with COVID-19 cases trending up nationwide. According to the New York Times, the seven-day average of new cases across the U.S. on Thursday was 54,399, a level last seen on Aug. 7. While more rural states such as North Dakota and Montana are seeing the biggest number of daily cases per capita, states with MLS teams such as Illinois, Colorado and Minnesota have seen a double-digit percentage rise in the seven-day moving average of new cases in the past week. Per the Times, the total number of positive cases in the U.S. is above 8 million as of Friday, with the death count north of 217,000 since data collection began in the early days of the pandemic.
"I'm worried about the whole country," Karan said. "We're seeing levels rising everywhere. They rise slowly, initially, and they'll rise a lot faster after that. Even in the hospital, we're starting to see more COVID cases. There was a period of time where I saw no COVID cases in Boston for weeks, and now I'm seeing COVID cases again. So, for me, it is concerning."
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One suggestion that has been floated in the media is that when the postseason begins, MLS should return to a bubble that worked so well in Orlando. Otherwise, as Dr. del Rio put it, "You're stuck. Unless you go back to a bubble, you're not going to get [to zero cases]." The advantage is that doing so would have the effect of forcing players and staff to adhere more strictly to the mitigation protocols. But when asked if that was a possibility, Abbott said, "Not really."
"I think that there are advantages and disadvantages to the bubble," Abbott explained. "I think that it becomes effective once you get established, but it's also disruptive in people's lives."
The alternative for MLS is to press forward and hope that the playoffs will be postponement-free. Given the way things have trended over the past three weeks, that seems unlikely. It also isn't clear what the league's plan would be if there are postponements during the playoffs.
"Something has to give. You can't have it all," Karan said. "You can't have all your revenues, all the safety and everything. That's not how it works. I think [MLS is] well aware that there's a safer way [in a bubble] that's gonna cost more money. And now they have to see where their values are."
MLS has been engaged in a high-wire act since March, balancing the health and safety of players and staff with the league's business concerns that include satisfying sponsor and broadcast commitments. Garber stated back in June that the league is sustaining a $1 billion revenue hit due to COVID-19.
The coming weeks will reveal how much risk it is willing to tolerate.