Major League Soccer reportedly sets June return for 26-team tournament in Orlando

Orlando City coach Oscar Pareja says “the community is ready to do it ... will be a great decision to bring it here.”
A look at part of the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex at Walt Disney World in this March 23, 2019, photo.
A look at part of the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex at Walt Disney World in this March 23, 2019, photo. [ STEPHEN M. DOWELL | TNS ]
Published May 13, 2020|Updated May 13, 2020

ORLANDO — Orlando City coach Oscar Pareja said he doesn’t know how Major League Soccer plans to resume play, but he endorses any effort to bring the league’s teams to Orlando.

MLS reportedly has sent its 26 teams a proposal to end its coronavirus shutdown by hosting training and a tournament at Disney World’s ESPN Wide World of Sports complex. ESPN reported that the proposal has players and coaches heading to the complex to begin training June 1, with the tournament — without fans in attendance — set to begin three to four weeks later.

“This community is ready to do it, and Orlando is the perfect city to hold an event like that,” Pareja said during a videoconference Wednesday. “Based on the experience, the infrastructure, everything. Orlando has everything to hold it. So if the league decides so … I think it will be a great decision to bring it here.”

As Pareja was talking with reporters, Gov. Ron DeSantis said during his news conference that he wants professional sports to return to Florida. He said if MLS wants to play games in Orlando, “do it.”

Pareja said he is optimistic MLS will be able to move toward resuming play in about a month, but he added he is just an observer waiting for guidance from the league.

He said it was a long 54 days since training was suspended. Orlando City completed it seventh day of individual workouts on Wednesday.

“It has been great to see them again, at least closer, with limits on the interaction with them,” Pareja said of the players’ individual workouts, which include strict distancing protocol. “ … Having them in the facility has been great. Boys are happy, they are very excited and very optimistic to see this progress to the next stage.”

Pareja said the pandemic has forced coaches to be more creative as they help players train. He said the same level of creativity will be needed when play resumes.

He has never worked with more than three substitutes during matches, but he said he thought it was great FIFA supported a shift to five subs because players have not been able to do group training for months and will likely play a heavy schedule.

“For us, it’s fine,” he said. “In terms of the health of the players, it’s good. I like it.”

The Athletic website, ESPN and the Washington Post have reported MLS is considering using a tournament format, reducing how much time teams are sequestered at a neutral site and catching up on games missed during the coronavirus shutdown.

While Pareja acknowledged there might be more fouls and slow downs during matches at moments such as throw-ins while players get back to peak fitness, he recalled his experiences as a player and sees no issue with multiple matches played each week.

“In the ‘80s and ‘90s, we used to play in my country in long tournaments and almost 60 games a year,” he said. “It was incredible. When I remember that, it was Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday and on and on.”

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“I think players are capable to perform three times a week with no problem.”

He added if a player is not ready, it’s an opportunity for other players to see minutes and for a coach to use his whole roster.

Whenever play resumes, it’s clear it will be done without fans.

Pareja acknowledged it will be a big change, with supporters adding passion to the sport.

“If that’s the scenario, then we can take the best of that,” he said.

The coach added that knowing fans are watching the matches at home will help.

UFC resumed fighting Saturday in Jacksonville and didn’t shut down when one fighter tested positive a day earlier for COVID-19. Other leagues have suggested a player would be isolated, but they wouldn’t necessarily stop play after a positive test.

Pareja said it’s all new territory for MLS officials to navigate, noting European soccer teams were grappling with the same issues.

“My approach to that situation is that we have to be very optimistic,” he said. “That we have to have faith in God and he will help us get through that situation. I think we as human beings (have) to be right now just facing this with bravery and see that some solutions will come soon. I try to be positive. You see that people are (thinking about playing) … games again is fantastic and hopefully that will happen. … I think we’re going to get out from this situation soon.”

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