LAFC, the league’s reigning Supporters’ Shield winner (best regular-season record) and a conference finalist in 2019, is the top seed in the group, which also includes the Houston Dynamo and Portland Timbers. Ninety minutes before the tournament’s virtual draw began, MLS announced that Orlando City, the host team, will play expansion club Inter Miami in the July 8 opener of the 54-game, 35-day competition.
It will be the first match between the two Florida teams.
What was touted by the league as a blind draw also paired the two Ohio teams, Columbus and Cincinnati, in Group E, Canadian rivals Montreal and Toronto in Group C, Pacific Northwest neighbors Seattle and Vancouver in Group B, and Midwestern foes Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City in Group D — a series of remarkable coincidences if that happened by chance.
LAFC and the Galaxy have met six times, with the Galaxy owning a 2-1-3 edge, the only loss coming in last fall’s Western Conference playoffs. Neither team has lost at home in the series.
The tournament will make MLS the first major professional league in the U.S. to return from the COVID-19 shutdown that halted play in sports three months ago. The competition, to be held behind closed doors but in front of TV cameras at the sprawling ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, will conclude with a championship game on Aug. 11.
“The culture of our club is' whatever, we’re in, we’re going to try to win,’” LAFC general manager John Thorrington said. “We understand the concerns of staff, of players, of the league. And this is a herculean task. It’s going to require a monumental effort from everybody.
“We will throw everything out that we can and our culture [is] always to try to win everything.”
But LAFC could be playing without its captain, league most valuable player Carlos Vela, who is expected to skip the tournament and stay in Southern California with his pregnant wife.
“We are going to address it on a case-by-case basis,” Thorrington said. “We understand players have unique circumstances and habits and we’ll work with players.”
Galaxy star Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, whose wife is also pregnant, said he will play, as will Seattle Sounders’ forward Jordan Morris, who has Type 1 diabetes and could have opted out of the tournament for health reasons.
The Galaxy are expected to resume full team training Friday for the first time in three months. LAFC spokesman Seth Burton said his team hopes to be cleared to begin small-group workouts this week.
The MLS tournament will have a $1.1-million prize-money purse and the winning team will receive a berth in next year’s CONCACAF Champions League.
Teams will play three games in the first round, with the top two finishers in each of the six groups, plus the four third-place teams with the best records, advancing to the knockout rounds. Ten teams will be eliminated in group play, which will last 16 days.
The group-play results will count in the standings when MLS resumes regular-season play in late summer, by which time the league expects teams will be cleared to play games in their home markets. The 34-game season was suspended March 12 after two matches.
Teams must be in Orlando by July 1, where players and staff will be quarantined in Disney’s Swan and Dolphin resort for as long as seven weeks. Everyone going into the protective bubble will have to submit to an antibody test and pass two COVID-19 screenings within 24 hours before being cleared to travel. They will be tested again after arriving in Florida, then every other day thereafter.
Anyone testing positive will be isolated immediately.
Tournament rules will allow teams to make five substitutions each match — two more than usual — and teams will be able to use a match-day roster of 23 players, five more than the usual limit. Video review of certain plays will be allowed.
MLS commissioner Don Garber said the COVID-19 pandemic could cost the league, which makes most of its money from game-day receipts, are much as $1 billion in lost revenue.
MLS chose Orlando as the site for its tournament in part because Florida was among the first to lift its COVID-19 restrictions, and its governor, Republican Ron DeSantis, has been aggressive in trying to draw professional sports to the state. UFC held three cards there last month and the NBA already has announced it will resume its season in Orlando next month.
But a record 1,698 new cases of people diagnosed with the novel coronavirus were reported in Florida on Thursday, which health experts fear is evidence the state reopened too soon and might be experiencing a resurgence in cases.
The tournament groupings
Orlando City SC
Inter Miami CF
New York City FC
Chicago Fire FC
Seattle Sounders FC
Vancouver Whitecaps FC
San Jose Earthquakes
New England Revolution
Real Salt Lake
Sporting Kansas City
Minnesota United FC
Atlanta United FC
New York Red Bulls
Columbus Crew SC
Portland Timbers FC