Last week, MLS and the MLS Players Association announced the completion of a new collective bargaining agreement. While the 2020 season initially started under the pretense of mutual understanding between the two sides regarding a new CBA, the deal was never made official. The subsequent halt of play as a result of COVID-19 forced the MLSPA and MLS into sometimes contentious negotiations that dragged out over the last month.
The new CBA's long-term outcome - the deal runs until the end of the 2025 season - is difficult to predict. Much of the new CBA's language remains similar to the "handshake agreement" the two sides had at the start of the season with concessions made in regards to the coronavirus crisis. The fact the negotiations played out sometimes very publicly and with strong opinions from both sides left some wondering if the sour taste in the short-term might hamper the other part to the CBA equation, which was the league's plan to return to play with a tournament in Orlando.
"My impression is always that players want to play. There’s no doubt that players want to play. The question is how we can get back to playing as soon as possible," LAFC EVP & GM John Thorrington said regarding the agreement. "For both sides, the league wants games and the players want games, the question is how we can do so as early as possible in a safe way that is also respectful of the needs and demands of the players and their health and safety. This is the plan that surfaced as the best among the limited options that we had.
"I think it’s a monumental task to pull off. And details are still being ironed out. But in principle, the fact that we are going to be able to be playing and competing in league games soon is certainly a step in the right direction."
As Thorrington pointed out, a lot around the Orlando tournament and MLS's return to play is still being finalized. The league hasn't been exceedingly forthcoming in the information it's given to clubs thus far. But there are a few things we do know.
The return to play will be a tournament format with a group stage consisting of at least three matches for each team. Group stage matches will count towards the regular-season standings, but how the regular season plays out after the tournament is still under consideration as the COVID-19 situation remains ever-changing.
After the group stage, the tops teams in each group will compete in a knock-out style format to crown a winner. The winner is rumored to receive a place in next year's Concacaf Champions League, in addition to a cash prize and charitable donation made on the team's behalf.
Regardless of how the tournament is outlined, Thorrington said LAFC enters all competitions with the same mindset.
"We have consistently shown that as a Club, we take every competition seriously. Despite the fact that it is a tournament format, some of these games do count towards our league standings, and then also, you have a meaningful tournament at the end of it," Thorrington said. "We always try to win everything we’re in. So, from that standpoint, nothing will change in terms of our approach. We’ll do our absolute best to put out our best product that represents our city and our Supporters the best we can."
With MLS's return to competitive play still a work in progress, the league has been meticulous in clarifying its approach to teams getting back to training ahead of the competition. On the same day it announced the CBA's completion, MLS detailed the final phase to its three-step plan to return teams to full training.
After allowing teams to move from voluntary individual workouts to small-group training, MLS outlined its direction on returning to full training including requiring teams to be tested on a regular basis. LAFC is currently in Phase One of the league's return to training plan - individual workouts. Thorrington noted LAFC's goal would be "to move into full-team training as soon as possible in order to prepare ourselves for the tournament in Orlando" but emphasized the need to closely follow orders of local and state officials as part of the process.
"For each stage of training, each team needs to get league approval and local authority approval. Obviously, the league's approval is consistent across all teams. But that is not necessarily the case when it comes to in-market conditions and local approval given the varying impact that COVID has on cities across our league," Thorrington said. "There is momentum, and teams and the league are hopeful to move towards full-team training."
That momentum comes at a tenuous time for the league, its fans, and the world as a whole. The coronavirus pandemic is very much still ongoing. People have taken to the streets in cities across the US (and the world) to protest police brutality and stand with the Black community after the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Thorrington acknowledged the place of sports in the big picture but hoped MLS's return would augment larger goals of teams in the community.
"With all that’s going on, we sort of understand it isn’t huge in the grand scheme of things. Sports don’t really matter. Yet, when we’re faced with these moments when we need to unite, sports are often a force to the good that helps unify. And that’s certainly one of our missions. It’s not impossible. I’m so proud of how the Club has continued to rally our supporters, staff, and players, and stayed engaged and connected with the community.
"But it certainly is easier once we’re playing games. The fulfillment of our mission and our goals will be made easier once we are back playing."