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The Salt: We’ve never seen soccer like this

MLS is Back — and here’s what we can expect, and some questions we should be asking.

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MLS: New York Red Bulls at Real Salt Lake Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

MLS is Back (written with a capital ‘B’, given it’s the lackluster name of the tournament and not a statement, even though it is a statement), and it’s going to be weird.

The tournament starts on July 8 and continues through August 11, with some teams exiting by the July 25 start of the Round of 16. It’s basically a weird tournament set midseason, but beyond that, it includes some very interesting rule changes — so let’s go through those, even though there are just a couple of note.

Rosters and substitutions

The first and most interesting change is that teams will be able to name a 23-man roster for matchday, and they’ll be given three opportunities to make five substitutions.

It’s hard to see the two changes in isolation: 23-man rosters with just three substitutions leaves a whole lot on the bench — it’s a tremendous waste of resources on a game-by-game basis, and it would incentivize teams to leave players home. If teams are going to present players with not inconsiderable medical risk by sending them to the tournament, giving them an opportunity to play will be important.

The substitutions rule — it’s basically the IFAB rule implemented for just 2020 — is interesting because it has the potential to substantially change the flow of a game. While thankfully the substitutions are implemented in such a way that it makes it difficult for teams to actively sabotage games late on.

Tournament structure

Real Salt Lake will be the first seed in one of the Western Conference groups, owing to their good finish in MLS (it still amazes me how Freddy Juarez pulled us out of a death spiral). We’ll play three group matches over 16 days, and if we finish in the top two of our four-team group, we’ll make it into the knockout rounds. That guarantees us three matches.

Matches will be played at 7 a.m., 6 p.m., and 8:30 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time to avoid the heat — and that’ll be, um, interesting. I’m not particularly good at waking up early (I am, however, very good at staying up far too late — I wonder if those are related...), so that will be just so much fun.

Opting out

Players who are part of vulnerable groups may opt out of the tournament, as well as players with pregnant spouses. Without a stated medical reason like that, it sounds like players might be fined — it remains to be seen if some players will accept the fine and not risk their health.

And there are apparently some feelings around opting out, too — something that hasn’t been helped by Don Garber threatening to lock out players during tense negotiations.

And, of course, there are other medical considerations, too — like what happens if somebody tests positive for COVID-19?

One more for good measure.

But ... why?

I mean, Don Garber has made it pretty clear.

Do you remember Real Salt Lake’s roster?

I’m struggling to. Over the coming weeks, let’s talk about who’s on the roster, who’s going to the tournament, who’s not (Giuseppi Rossi and his wife just announced a pregnancy, for instance — and while he hasn’t said he’s out, that might well be the case, given that; Damir Kreilach’s wife is due in early July and will likely have given birth prior to the start of the tournament — does he get an out to spend time with his newborn?) and all that nonsense.

Anyway, that’s all something for another day — especially when things get a bit more certain than they are now, outside of the structure.

Extra reading

This isn’t related to the tournament, but it’s all worth a read anyway.