Major League Soccer officials have made it clear they want the league to play a full season in 2020, but the lingering uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus outbreak has brought into question just how exactly the league can accomplish that.
One unprecedented possibility — as undesirable as it may be — might be to play some games behind closed doors.
The MLS season has been suspended since March 12 due to the ongoing situation with the coronavirus, and there is currently no end in sight for that suspension as the league continues to monitor the ongoing developments of the pandemic while prioritizing the health of its players, coaches and fans.
Teams are still not permitted to train together, with the league extending its moratorium on Wednesday until April 3, and the grim reality of these trying times — should things not improve relatively soon — may require MLS to play at least some games in empty stadiums in order to play out the full 2020 schedule.
“That would be tough,” said FC Dallas head coach Luchi Gonzalez on Wednesday. “We love our fans and the league has certainly loved its fans. The fan base has grown exponentially since the beginning of the league, since the time I played in the league. We are proud of that and we believe we have some of the best fan bases in the world globally. That would be disappointing if we could not play in front of our fans or family.
“I know that hurts the economy of how the sports world works in terms of sponsorships and TV rights, but at the same time as much as we would miss that we would have to play for them anyway even if they are not in the stadium.”
While playing behind closed doors is not uncommon in leagues around the world, it would be an unprecedented move for MLS should such a drastic decision be made. Never before in the league’s 25-year history has a regular season match been held without supporters in the stands, though certain international games involving MLS teams have.
Unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures, however, and they could require such a move from MLS if the league remains so set on having all its clubs play out the remainder of their respective 34 games this year.
It would be a bitter pill to swallow for all involved, but something that may be necessary in order to minimize risks while finishing out the campaign.
“I think as players so much of what we love is to be in stadiums with people supporting us and for that not to occur would be something that we would all wrestle with for sure,” said Inter Miami midfielder Wil Trapp. “At the same time, your job obligates you to do things that certainly in these confines and in these times could be different than what you expect or than what you want.
“But I think we do have to look first and foremost at the safety not only as professionals and fans and those types of divides, but more as just human beings and what makes sense and we need to take care of each other. If that means we play games behind closed doors, then that’s a hurdle that we’ll cross when we get there.”
For Inter Miami, such a decision from MLS could have massive implications. The league suspended play two days before the expansion franchise was set to play in a much-anticipated home opener, and the possibility of holding games behind closed doors would likely result in Inter Miami having to host that first-ever match in South Florida in an empty venue.
That would be a bit of a blow to the expansion outfit — especially since that March 14 showdown with the LA Galaxy was already sold out — but it may just have to be an option if the league’s moratorium continues to stretch further.
“I guess our concern going forward is when they finally piece it all together and we do have that home opener, what is that going to look like?” said Inter Miami captain and goalkeeper Luis Robles. “That is something you really have to consider. Is it behind closed doors, where it’s just on TV, or are they going to open it up? I really hope it is the second but I think right now (the league doesn’t) have all the information to even make that decision.
“You do hope that it ends up being a momentous occasion that includes the entire soccer community where people are there and can really feel the passion that our fans have really gained in momentum over the last couple of years and really over the last couple of months so that they get to celebrate that moment with us when we step on the field when we do have that home opener. I don’t know what that’s going to look like. I can only hope that it ends up being like that, but we’ll see what ends up culminating at the end.”
Clearly, the ideal scenario for Inter Miami and MLS on a whole would be for the coronavirus outbreak to be contained in the very near future so that things can resume as they were. That is a very optimistic scenario though, given the reality that the Coronavirus pandemic has yet to show any signs of slowing down in the United States.
Nonetheless, the expectation is that the MLS regular season will resume at some point in the coming weeks. It might just be without supporters, at least to start.
“There will (at some point) be that moment that finally the fans are there and all the supporters’ groups are there and the season ticket holders and we’re there,” said Robles. “Maybe it is not going to be as drawn up as it previously would have been, but nonetheless it will happen and it will be a great occasion.”
Added Gonzalez: “We have got to make sure we give them everything we’ve got, whether they are in the stands or not.”