Major League Soccer announced the specifics of its summer return to play tournament, which start in Orlando on July 8. The event, which will be called the MLS is Back Tournament, runs through August 11 and will be played entirely at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. The winner will earn a Concacaf Champions League spot, regardless of whether the champion is based in the United States or Canada.
Per a league press release, clubs will be allowed to arrive in Orlando “as early as June 24,” and all clubs must arrive no later than one week before their first match. This is to allow for adequate time to meet the league’s coronavirus testing protocols. In order to avoid the worst heat of a central Florida summer and to provide live sports for broadcast partners, the tournament will feature games in three windows: 9:00am, 8:00pm, and 10:30pm. Games will be played nearly every day throughout the tournament.
The tournament will involve a group stage, which will be done in a live draw tomorrow at 3:30pm Eastern. Nashville SC will be moved to the Eastern Conference, which will be broken into three groups. However, those groups will not be the same size: one will have six teams, and the other two will have four. The Western Conference is more straightforward, with the 12 remaining teams broken up into three groups, all of which will have four teams.
As the host of the tournament, Orlando City has already been seeded as the top team in Group A (which is also going to be the six-team group). They will play in the tournament’s opening match on July 8. The other group seeds in the East are Atlanta United and Toronto FC, while the West seeds are Los Angeles Football Club, the Seattle Sounders, and Real Salt Lake. Those clubs, assigned their seeds based on last year’s playoff performances (and in the case of RSL, their place in last year’s regular season Western Conference standings) will be assigned a group at the start of the draw. Per the competition guidelines, clubs from the East will be placed in groups A, C, and E, while groups B,D, and F will be for the Western Conference.
Teams will play three group stage games, meaning that the group of six will not include matches against every opponent. The results of all three group stage games will count towards the MLS regular season standings. While today’s statement did not clarify whether the first two games played this season will still count towards those same standings, there is no current reason to believe that they’ll be tossed out. While the breakdown of how the money will be dispersed was not announced today, MLS has stated that the tournament has a $1.1 million prize pool.
The group stage, which will include 16 straight days of games, will conclude on July 23. The top two teams from each group, along with the four third-place teams that collect the most points, will move on to a knockout round. All knockout games will only last 90 minutes; tied games will move directly to a penalty kick tiebreaker rather than playing extra time.
The knockout round will begin on July 25, with the round of 16 taking up the first four days. There will be a one-day gap between rounds, with the quarterfinals taking place on July 30 and August 1. Teams that make the semifinal will get a larger break, with the next round’s games falling on August 5-6. The final will be played on August 11.
In accordance with temporary changes allowed by IFAB (International Football Association Board), the rules on substitutions have changed. Teams will be allowed five substitutions, and can only stop play to make a substitution three times. Subs made at halftime do count towards the limit of five total changes, but do not count towards the restriction on stopping play. For example, a team could make two substitutions at halftime, and then make three single subs during the course of the rest of the game and remain in compliance with the new regulations.
Teams will also be allowed to have up to 23 players on their gameday roster, a change from the customary 18. However, do not expect large packs of subs warming up: clubs are limited to having just six substitutes warming up at any given time, and when all substitution opportunities have been used up, all players must report back to the bench area. With regards to playing in the Florida heat, the normal league rule on cooling breaks remains in place. However, referees are now allowed to grant teams 60-second “drinks breaks” at their discretion.