Major League Soccer is back.
And just to make sure everyone was clear on the concept, the league included that in the name of its return-to-play competition, the MLS Is Back tournament, which kicked off Wednesday before TV cameras and a handful of journalists at an otherwise-empty ESPN’s Wide World of Sports.
The opening game was a plodding affair in which Orlando City outlasted Inter Miami 2-1 on a Nani goal deep in stoppage time. But it was an even bigger victory for the league just to get the tournament off the ground.
“It felt different because we’ve been away from the game for so long,” Nani said. “It’s hard to go so long without playing a game. It was hard for both teams.”
How long the tournament will continue is also hard to figure. The Athletic reported just before kickoff that four Nashville SC players received positive COVID-19 results Wednesday, meaning 20 players from three teams have failed tests since entering the league’s quarantine in Orlando 12 days ago.
Ten of those players were from FC Dallas, which has been withdrawn from the tournament. Nine are with Nashville, which was scheduled to play the second game of an opening-night doubleheader. That game was postponed and Nashville will learn Thursday if it too is being withdrawn from the tournament.
Wednesday’s opener, then, was the rare bright spot in an otherwise grim run-up to the World Cup-style tournament, one that made soccer the first male team sport to return to play in the U.S. since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of the country in mid-March.
MLS followed a long, winding and potholed road to Wednesday’s game. Most teams weren’t able to resume full-team practices until the middle of last month and with the 26 clubs bound by the disparate rules of public health authorities in 17 states and three Canadian provinces, the league was forced to bring its teams to Florida and quarantine them at the sprawling Disney resort just to get everyone on the field again.
But two weeks before teams began arriving, COVID-19 cases in Florida skyrocketed. Then hours after checking in to the quarantine, FC Dallas had two players test positive, poking a hole in the league’s carefully constructed protective bubble.
That made the opener, played in stifling humidity and under leaden skies, all the more remarkable.
It began with a powerful plea for social justice that saw more than 170 Black players from nearly every MLS team, clad all in black and wearing black gloves and facemasks, ring the field while the starters from Orlando City and Miami knelt at the center circle.
The silent demonstration lasted eight minutes and 46 seconds, the initially reported time a Minneapolis police officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man, killing him.
“It was very powerful to put my fist up and to be there on the field with so many people that are trying to make a change in this country,” said Miami’s Juan Agudelo, who took part in the pregame ceremony then scored his team’s only goal early in the second half.
The game was almost as largely silent as the demonstration. Without fans there were no cheers, no chants, no waving banners and little atmosphere. In its place was the sound of players calling to one another; it was as if the teams had decided to play a preseason scrimmage on national TV.
Speaking of TV, ESPN’s coverage featured aerial cameras, cameras behind the nets and microphones on the officials, in the turf and along both benches. Without the pesky fans and stadium infrastructure getting in the way, ESPN was able to project a giant Adidas logo in the center circle and advertisements on a blue screen along one sideline.
“It’s true we didn’t have the fans. The stadium was empty,” Nani said. “Today we made the noise.”
And for MLS, after four months of silence, what a beautiful sound it was.