With no indications of when it could resume the season in home markets, MLS has proposed placing all 26 teams in the Orlando area this summer and playing competitive matches without spectators at the Disney sports complex and possibly other locations, multiple people familiar with the plan said.
The players, coaches and support staff, numbering more than 1,000, would live under quarantine at one of the large resorts near Disney World for an undetermined length of time, said those people, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter.
Teams would practice and play primarily at ESPN Wide World of Sports, which sits on 220 acres as part of Disney’s massive footprint in central Florida. Disney-owned ESPN is one of MLS’s broadcast partners.
Spokesmen for MLS and the MLS Players Association said they did not want to comment. The Walt Disney Co. did not reply to a message seeking comment.
The league is expected to accelerate plans over the next two weeks and set the framework for resuming a season that, because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, was shuttered after two weekends.
In jurisdictions where such activities are permitted, several teams have begun voluntary individual workouts. The league has postponed all matches until at least June 8, though the realistic timetable stretches deeper into the summer.
MLS hopes to soon allow players to begin training as part of small groups in local markets, a step the Bundesliga took last month before ramping up operations. The elite German circuit, along with the country’s second division, will resume this weekend with matches played without spectators.
Other European soccer leagues have also made plans to restart their seasons in the coming weeks.
Under its Orlando plan, MLS would welcome teams for workouts and multiple matches per day, which ESPN platforms would carry. It’s unclear whether the league’s other TV partners, Fox Sports and Univision, would show games.
Without spectators in the stadium, MLS is eyeing opportunities to bond with fans through behind-the-scenes packages and interactive engagement on ESPN and the league’s digital platform.
“We are more optimistic about what a return-to-play plan would look like,” Commissioner Don Garber said on Nashville SC’s website last week. “A month ago, we were very pessimistic.”
Last week, Florida partially reopened nonessential businesses, although sports venues, including ESPN Wide World of Sports, remain closed.
Players would have to be tested regularly – provided tests are even available in large quantities – and undergo regular medical evaluations.
They would not be allowed to bring their families, two people familiar with the plans said. For those with children, it would place a long-term burden on wives, and in general, put emotional strains on relationships.
The league would also have to consider the health and safety of hotel and stadium employees, bus drivers, security and TV crews, and accredited media. Presumably, MLS would have a contingency plan in place in case anyone tests positive.
“What is most important is to ensure they are safe in whatever environment we are able to develop to get them back to train first and then obviously get back to playing games,” commissioner Don Garber told Yahoo! Finance last week.
At some point, the league would plan to send teams home for games without spectators, though varying degrees of state restrictions might leave some unable to host matches in the foreseeable future.
The Orlando idea is among multiple options that have been considered by MLS, which, like other pro sports leagues, is exploring ways to play without endangering players and employees.
Among the MLS proposals is to select two or more geographic locations to stage workouts and matches this summer. The league has also braced for not playing any games until September, at the earliest.
MLS does have some calendar flexibility. The regular season is scheduled to end in early October and the postseason one month later. In the past, the playoffs have finished the second week of December.
League officials have said they would consider playing a truncated schedule into the winter and holding MLS Cup at a predetermined, warm-weather site in early 2021.
The scheduling plans come as MLS and the MLSPA continue to negotiate salary cuts for the players. The league, which relies heavily on game-day revenue, sent its latest proposal to the union late last week.