Major League Soccer (MLS) has announced plans to resume its regular season with teams back in their home cities, as New York City FC (NYCFC) again face up to the prospect of having to move into the stadium of its local rival.

The North American league has returned to action with the MLS is Back tournament. The competition has been running behind closed doors at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida since July 8, and will conclude with the final between Portland Timbers and Orlando City tomorrow (Tuesday).

The group stage matches in MLS is Back counted toward the 2020 regular season, which was suspended on March 12 after two rounds due to COVID-19. Following the conclusion of MLS is Backthe League has announced its 25th season will continue in the home markets of the 26 clubs with the first game on Wednesday.

With the United States having been heavily impacted by the global pandemic, MLS stressed the return to play in home markets will feature comprehensive health and safety protocols, including regular testing of players, coaches and essential staff for COVID-19.

Each club will play 18 additional regular season games in a phased approach, culminating with ‘Decision Day’ on November 8. To make up the three matches missed from the tournament after their withdrawals following positive COVID-19 tests, FC Dallas and Nashville SC will play an additional three matches, against each other, with the first two games on August 12 and 16 and a third game to be scheduled in the autumn.

In an expansion of the postseason for 2020, 18 clubs will compete in the MLS Cup Playoffs – up from 14 teams last year. MLS Cup will be played on December 12.

Due to travel restrictions between the US and Canada, MLS announced the initial phase of the league’s revised schedule with each American club playing six matches against other US teams by September 14.

MLS said it continues to work with the league’s three Canadian clubs – Montreal Impact, Toronto FC and Vancouver Whitecaps – regarding plans to continue the regular season. Speaking to the media, MLS commissioner Don Garber conceded that the League is likely to face challenges as it bids to enact its plan.

He said: “We’re aware of those challenges, we’re prepared for it, understanding that it’s not going to be easy. We know that we might have issues that are going to disrupt us and force us to postpone games. We’re aware of the need to be flexible and we are aware that we’re entering a new normal for our industry.

“We believe we have a good plan and we believe our players and our staff are focused on adhering to our protocols and if we’re able to do that we should be able to get our games in. If we can’t do that in a way that’s safe and one that’s ensuring the health of our players, then we’ll have to address it. If it doesn’t work then we won’t move forward.”

At this time, the majority of the matches in local markets will be played without fans in attendance. MLS and club leadership are working with local health authorities and government officials on a plan for limited capacity at certain games where allowed.

“There are a number of states in our country that are allowing a limited number of fans to sports events today,” Garber said. “Those clubs that are interested in welcoming fans where their states allow, we’ll consider it after they submit a plan and that plan is following the guidelines of our infectious disease doctor and following the protocols established by the states and by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

“In the event that it passes (those criteria) then we’ll consider it. No plan has been approved to date. That process is just starting. I don’t anticipate that it is going to be a lot of markets in phase one. That process is going to continue as more and more states either decide to allow fans for sports events or some states that have decided to allow them might change their mind.”

Meanwhile, with Yankee Stadium being unavailable due to COVID-19 health and safety protocols that prevent other events in Major League Baseball (MLB) stadia during the baseball season, NYCFC has said it will play Phase 1 and Phase 2 home games at Red Bull Arena, home of local rivals New York Red Bulls.

NYCFC will have the option to move any home games scheduled after the conclusion of the Yankees’ season to Yankee Stadium. Fans will not be permitted to attend any Phase 1 games at Red Bull Arena.

NYCFC CEO, Brad Sims, said: “We conducted a thorough review of potential venues with our first choice always being to play home games within the Five Boroughs, however due to league COVID-19 protocols, Red Bull Arena was the best choice for us at this time. We look forward to returning to our home at Yankee Stadium when we are able to.”

The announcement again highlights NYCFC’s lack of a permanent home stadium. Earlier this year, the team played two home CONCACAF Champions League games at Red Bull Arena, a decision which angered its supporters.

In February, it was reported that New York City FC’s plans for its own stadium were set to move forward after the club revived a proposal for a new 25,000-seat venue in the Bronx. The team has played at Yankee Stadium, home of the New York Yankees, since it entered MLS in 2015.

Image: New York Red Bulls