Earlier this year, I wrote a story about why Denver doesn’t get super excited about its Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise, the Colorado Rapids. But do you know what gets everyone in a tizzy? The World Cup.
That’s what the league is comparing its MLS Is Back Tournament to—and, to be fair, the format is similar…if the players not so much (you know, because America couldn’t be bothered to qualify for the last World Cup). Still—it’s sports, baby! A real-life, happening-at-this-moment, outcome-still-undecided chance to root for a Denver team. In preparation, we answered all the questions you might have before kickoff on Sunday.
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What is the MLS Is Back Tournament?
In order to return to the pitch while also keeping players and staff safe, MLS has sequestered every team but two (we’ll get to them in a second) at Walt Disney World in Florida. There, they’ve been divided into six groups and every game will be played at the on-site ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Like the World Cup, squads will play three matches during group play; the top two from each batch will then advance to a knockout bracket. The final will be held on August 11, so if the Rapids win the whole thing, they’ll have been trapped inside Disney World for longer than a month—which I bet is less fun than it sounds.
Who is in the Rapids group and when do they play?
Colorado will square off against three Western Conference rivals. The Rapids’ first game is this Sunday at 8:30 p.m. against hated Real Salt Lake, and then they face wretched Sporting Kansas City on July 17 at 6 p.m. before wrapping up group play against Minnesota United FC on July 22 at 8:30 p.m. (MUFC is pretty new to the league, so we don’t have any real beef. Yet.) All three of Colorado’s group-stage games will be broadcast on ESPN. (Go here for the full TV schedule.)
So if the Rapids win the tournament, do they win the 2020 MLS championship?
Nope. The group stage games do count toward the year-end standings. Once the tournament in completed in August, MLS hopes the pandemic has cooled enough so it can resume the regular season. It’s shooting to play 18 games after the tourney, which, counting the two matches each team already played before the pandemic suspended the season, would make for a 23-game schedule. The knockout stage results, however, only matter within the confines of Disney World. The ultimate winner, though, will earn a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League and a tidy $1.1 million purse.
How do the players feel about the tournament?
Not great. Two teams, Dallas FC and Nashville SC, have already withdrawn because of a number of positive COVID-19 tests. Colorado’s own Diego Rubio tweeted this on July 5: “Hearing from a player in the bubble that their team is supposed to be quarantined since they got a positive test. But there is no one delivering meals to their room which is supposed to be the protocol, so they have to go down to the meal room, get on elevators and bring their meal back. Telling other players to be careful with the surfaces and use extra hand sanitizer. We were supposed to go there and just think about soccer, but now we have all these problems? How are we going to play thinking that it is dangerous to go outside your room? What are our families going to think about the situation?”
Add to that mess the fact that players are already upset with owners about losing $100 million in concessions during the latest collective bargaining negotiations (owners threatened to lock out the players during the pandemic), and suddenly Disney World has become the edgiest place on Earth.
But can the Rapids really win?
As I wrote in my story before the season, executive vice president and general manager Pádraig Smith is really confident about the team he put together for this season. And 2020’s early results lend come credence to that optimism. OK, it was only two games, but the Rapids dispatched D.C. United in the season opener 2-1 (outshooting their opponent 21-12) and beat Orlando City by the same margin. The latter featured goals from two big off-season signings: Younes Namli from Denmark and veteran Drew Moor, a fan favorite and member of the Rapids 2010 MLS championship squad. What does that mean for the MLS Is back Tournament? Nothing! It’s a tournament and reason rarely resides in single-elimination competition. But like the NCAA Tournament and the World Cup, it should be fun to watch.