The Fire got some clarity about how their season will resume. That doesn’t mean every question has been answered.
On Wednesday, MLS formally announced the details of the league’s “MLS is Back Tournament,” scheduled for July 8-Aug. 11 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando. Teams will begin arriving in Florida as early as June 24 for the event, which will include three group-stage matches for each club that count in the 2020 standings, and then a 16-team knockout tournament. The reward for winning the whole thing is a berth in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League, along with financial bonuses as part of a $1.1 million prize pool.
“Not knowing a date, when are we going to start again, when are we going to start again, was for us in our profession quite difficult to handle,” Fire coach Raphael Wicky told the Sun-Times. “We’re very happy that now we have that information.”
Unanswered is how the league will proceed after the Orlando event wraps up.
In announcing the tournament, MLS said it plans to continue the regular season with a revised slate in its home markets. But a schedule, dates, and even how many games will be played were not announced
During a media availability, commissioner Don Garber said he’s “very optimistic” and expects that teams will be back in their stadiums this season. Beyond that, he didn’t have too many details.
“I do believe we’ll get back to our markets. I think all of our fans should expect that to happen,” Garber said. “When that will happen is still uncertain, and whether or not we’ll have any markets with fans is also uncertain, but we are also hearing about different guidelines that have been established state-by-state where there’s even a possibility that some fans might be able to attend games.”
Getting to play in Chicago would be a boon for the Fire, whose ballyhooed return to Soldier Field was postponed due to the outbreak of COVID-19. Their first two games - before the pause - were March 1 in Seattle and March 7 at New England.
Something else that would help the Fire is time to train together before competing in games that count. They were one of the last clubs in the league cleared for voluntary individual workouts, and as of Wednesday had not begun full team training, while some teams have.
Wicky said he trusts that the players executed the workout plans they were given by the club. The Fire have also engaged in small group training, but neither is the same as working together as a complete team or facing competition. And though the games will be held either early in the morning or in the evening, Orlando in the middle of summer will still test teams’ cohesion and fitness.
Wicky said a return to full team training will be an important step in preparation for the resumption of the season.
“We have to see how much time we have,” Wicky said. “That’s just a reality and a fact. We hope, really hope, that we can start full team training soon so that we really can prepare the players tactically, technically, but also physically.”
The draw for the group stage is Thursday and the Fire will be paired with other Eastern Conference teams. Depending on the draw’s results, the Fire’s group will have either four or six teams.