(Reuters) – Major League Soccer will resume its 25th anniversary season on Wednesday in Orlando with a tournament that has already been hit hard by the COVID-19 outbreak as reigning league MVP Carlos Vela and the entire FC Dallas club are sitting out.
After a four-month hiatus due to the novel coronavirus, MLS will try to successfully stage a month-long event at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex where a COVID-19 testing plan is in place in a bid to maintain the health of all involved.
The original field of 26 has already lost one team as MLS pulled Dallas from the tournament after 10 of the club’s players tested positive for the virus.
Nashville SC could be the next to go as MLS postponed their first game and are evaluating the club’s participation after five players tested positive and four more require further testing.
Despite the absence of Mexican forward Vela, who cited his wife’s “risky pregnancy” for his decision to stay home, his Los Angeles FC club are one of the favourites to win the World Cup-style tournament.
LAFC head coach Bob Bradley said his team have risen to the challenge before and is confident they will do the same in Vela’s absence.
“Everybody saw last year that in the league Carlos was a cut above everyone, and so when you take him away that does challenge others to step up,” said Bradley. “But we’ve seen that happen before, even on days when Carlos has been on the field.”
Reigning MLS Cup champion Seattle Sounders, bolstered by the offseason additions of Brazilian midfielder Joao Paulo and Colombian center back Yeimar Gomez Andrade, are also widely expected to be in the mix for the title.
Among the other favourites are Toronto FC, who fell to Seattle in last year’s MLS Cup, New York City FC and 2018 champion Atlanta United, who will be without Josef Martinez as he is still working his way back from a torn ACL.
Billed as the MLS Is Back Tournament, the event will be held without fans and will have group stage matches that count in the regular season standings while the winner will earn a spot in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League.
Following the tournament, MLS plans to continue its regular season with a revised schedule of home and away games, followed by the playoffs and the 25th MLS Cup.
(This story refiled to fix story link in paragraph four, no change to story)
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Ken Ferris)