“We have made the decision to withdraw FC Dallas from the MLS is Back Tournament,” announced commissioner Don Garber in a statement days before its opening match. The careful wording underlined the mood at the newly created tournament, put together and announced a month earlier. Opposition clubs were reportedly frustrated that Dallas hadn’t done enough to keep their team “virus-free” in the build-up to the bubble. Thus, Luchi Gonzalez’s side didn’t choose to leave after nine players and a manager tested positive for COVID-19, they were kicked out. Shortly after, Nashville SC would also leave the Orlando bubble following two positive COVID-19 tests, though on their volition. The tension only added to the seemingly haphazard nature of the environment. With that many positive tests, would the tournament even start, much less be able to finish?
There was finally an opening match, which began with players from Orlando City and Inter Miami kneeling for 8 minutes and 46 seconds in George Floyd’s memory. Orlando’s 2-1 win foreshadowed 33-year-old Nani’s dominance throughout the tourney with his game-winning goal, the introduction of U.S. attacker Chris Mueller to the national stage in leveling the match (off Nani’s assist), and new manager Oscar Pareja’s potential to succeed with a franchise that had never made the playoffs in their five MLS seasons.
That we got to an actual match was a relief. But it wasn’t until a stretch of results a week later when the expectations of the tournament shifted. The Vancouver Whitecaps were on their way to a routine 3-1 win over the San Jose Earthquake when Chris Wondowloski grabbed back a goal in the 72nd minute. The intrigue was rewarded with Oswaldo Alanistying the match nine minutes later. Then, Shea Salinas won the match in the 98th minute with an individual moment from half-field. We saw and heard the emotions, proving how much results mattered despite the scrimmage-like feel without supporters and the tournament’s lack of history.
That ending kicked off a stretch of uncontrolled action in the late night timeslot, giving MLS its own version of a #Pac12AfterDark where no result was safe. Toronto beat Montreal 4-3 the next night, capped off by a hat-trick from 20-year-old U.S. forward Ayo Akinola. Sporting KC beat Colorado 3-2 the following night, with a Graham Zusi goal in the 92nd minute against a 9-player Rapids side. LAFC would follow that up by destroying the Galaxy 6-2. The #MLSAfterDark mentality was established. More than a top-down branding exercise of the original MLS is Back Tournament name, the tournament found itself organically, through late-night matches, stoppage time goals, and young U.S. internationals showcasing themselves in front of a nationwide audience on television and social media.
From matches that began both at 11 p.m. and 9 a.m. ET, to the $65 box lunches that invoked the Fyre Festival, the unpredictable nature was always in the tournament’s fabric. That contrast was especially poignant when compared to the careful consideration of the NBA’s bubble on the same campus. Any tactical or formational innovations over the month-long stretch of games would be for another time. This tournament rewarded deep pragmatism, more surviving into the next round by taking advantage of singular moments than long stretches of ideas.
Outside of young Americans Akinola and Mueller (who Pareja described as a future U.S. international), Union midfielder Brenden Aaronson was the breakout star of the tournament. The 19-year-old, who made his senior debut for the USMNT last January, had the most viral skill of the tournament with this turn and assist to Sergio Santos. Bild described him as the “U.S. Kai Havertz” amid links with Eintracht Frankfurt, Borussia Monchengladbach, and Freiburg. A European move was already inevitable, but six matches drawing all of social media, supporters, and scouts’ attention would speed up his eventual transfer.
“If he’s going to make it as a No. 10 at the very highest level...he’s going to do it by being a volume player, a player that’s on the ball all the time,” said Union manager Jim Curtin.
Did the unpredictability translate into a tangible movement for the league? There was a rush of initial excitement: the opening match between Inter Miami and Orlando City averaged 464,000 viewers, the fifth most-watched regular season match over the last five years. The league announced a ratings increase of 7% as compared to July 2019, with prime time games seeing a 4% increase in viewership. There were missteps. The 9 a.m. ET kickoffs topped out at 175,000 viewers as compared to primetime in the tournament matches averaging 296,000 viewers. Michael Bradley described the early time slots as “a shame.”
“Clearly, playing games at 9 a.m. on a weekday, there’s a lot of learnings we can take from that,” said the league’s vice president of media Seth Bacon. Though if there was ever a time to get away with experimentation, it was during a tournament without the weight of tradition.
Despite arguments for its value, this appears to be a one-off event. If at the very least, the tournament let young American players introduce themselves to a wider audience and gave underachieving teams an opportunity for meaningful matches, isn’t that worth something? The past month highlighted what makes MLS unique, in primetime. Matches are never truly over due to questionable defenses, Designated Player-led attacks, and midfields losing their shape as teams chased goals. We’re always reminded of how the league lags behind its European counterparts, but it does have a personality. And it is something we can call our own.
Far from reflecting upon of what the past month meant for MLS, the regular season immediately resumed the following day after the Timbers beat Orlando 2-1 in the final. Five months after both sides last played a match, and more than a month after the bubble controversy, Nashville defeated Dallas 1-0 for their first win in franchise history. Even then, there was no escape: Nashville manager Gary Smith missed the match after a false positive test. And more significantly, 2,912 fans attended the match.
Gonzalez admitted before the match that his Dallas side felt the backlash from getting sent home, saying that they took the first few practices to fall back in love with the game amid the criticism. His side refused to be blamed for the positive tests, however.
“We have young players that live in multi-generation homes with mom, dad, brother, sister and they work and they are essential workers and they have to be out there. It’s not that someone went out somewhere and got it; some of the cases were brought home,” said Gonzalez, of the dangers in mixing the artifice of sport with the pragmatism of the everyday.
An NBA coach predicted that the next great superteam would form during their time in the bubble. You wonder what the MLS equivalent of that would be considering the restrictive nature of its player movement by comparison. Maybe the remnants of this tournament will show itself later this season through the tactical and psychological cohesion during the MLS Cup, the “real” competition. But while we await the unraveling, the league continued to look to the future. A day after Nashville’s win, St. Louis City SC revealed their new logo on social media, with the franchise set to debut in 2023. The MLS is Back Tournament was seemingly gone as quickly as it was put together.