What the A-League can learn from MLS’s restart

Updated: Aug 4, 2020

The A-League will be finishing its 2019-20 season starting on Friday evening, approximately four months after the season was suspended, cramming its remaining regular-season games within a four-week window.

And to do so, the league will be assembling all eleven of its teams in a Sydney hub, with Melbourne’s three clubs having just joined in.

Meanwhile, approximately 17,000 kilometres away from that Sydney hub, another soccer competition has just kicked off in a hub of its own. Major League Soccer (MLS), the United States’ top-flight competition celebrating its 25th season this year, kicked off its “MLS Is Back” tournament on Thursday (Australian time), at the ESPN Wide World Of Sports complex in Orlando, Florida.

In the tournament taking place in that Orlando hub – which many MLS insiders refer to as “the Orlando bubble” – “MLS Is Back” pits 24 of the league’s 26 member clubs against each other in what the league calls “a World Cup-style of tournament” with six balanced four-team groups reducing themselves to knockout rounds from the Round Of 16 onwards, until a champion is crowned on August 12.

The “MLS Is Back” matches – being contested at the hub without fans being allowed to attend – will count in the league’s regular-season standings, in a milestone season that was suspended on March 11 after having played just two rounds.

If all goes according to plan with the “MLS Is Back” tournament – which is no guarantee, given how the COVID-19 global pandemic has ravaged its way throughout the U.S. and in the state of Florida in particular – MLS remains hopeful to resume its regular season and a playoff campaign which will culminate in the MLS Cup championship game, in dates yet to be determined, pending the success of this tournament.

The details surrounding the “MLS Is Back” tournament happen to be of critical observation to the A-League’s season revival. Although the reputation of a vast majority of A-League fans is to closely follow the European leagues rather than those in the Americas, none of the leagues in England, Germany, Italy or Spain have used the hub system to restart their seasons, whereas MLS has.

So if the A-League was to observe what MLS is doing in Orlando, what lessons could they apply to what they can do in Sydney?

The most important general lesson should be a simple one: from an organizational standpoint, accept that not everything is going to go according to plan, revise from setbacks quickly, and learn and grow from it all.

While the A-League has had its issues surrounding its three Melbourne-based clubs – Melbourne Victory, Melbourne City and Western United – having their plights tied into the current spike in Melbourne’s COVID-19 cases, and unable to leave the state of Victoria in a timely fashion to join the Sydney hub, MLS had setbacks with two teams that were already in the Orlando bubble.

When FC Dallas reported ten COVID-19 cases among its playing group and expansion side Nashville SC reported nine among its own, MLS found it had no other choice but to expel each team from the tournament. And with FC Dallas’s ouster leaving Group B with just three teams, the league moved the Chicago Fire out of a lopsided Group A and into Group B to join the San Jose Earthquakes, Seattle Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps, to bring about the six balanced round-robin groups.

Meanwhile, all three of Melbourne’s A-League clubs gained special permission to fly out of Melbourne and landed in Sydney on Saturday, upon all of their collected players passing their COVID-19 tests, the A-League has had to juggle its fixtures to account for those teams to abide by a required 14-day quarantine before they can train or play in league matches.

The A-League anticipates to complete its regular season with 27 remaining games in a 28-day interval, with its Grand Final slated to be played on August 23.

“Over the past three months all stakeholders have been working hard together with one goal in mind – to finish what we started,” Greg O’Rourke, Football Federation Australia’s head of leagues, said on July 1 with regard to the possibility of fixture rearrangements for any club.

“We know the COVID-19 environment has been very difficult for many people in our community and we hope that delivering an extravaganza of matches will allow our fans to basically see a game every day will be a unique experience for those who have stood by us,” added O’Rourke.

The travel to games, or the decision not to, remains the main difference between the two respective rebooted competitions. The A-League – as is the case with the AFL and NRL hubs in Australia – will be shuffling its remaining games at stadiums around New South Wales and Queensland, while games in the “MLS Is Back” tournament are taking place exclusively at the Orlando bubble.

MLS, at the level of the league’s office in New York City, has dealt with the potential public relations disaster surrounding the FC Dallas and Nashville SC situations in a manner to best minimize the risk of infection as much as possible to the remaining 24 teams.

“If you take FC Dallas and Nashville out of the equation, with all of their positive COVID-19 cases, then MLS, in its Orlando bubble, has only had one positive case, which later re-tested as a negative case. So MLS has managed the situation very well,” said Taylor Twellman, ESPN’s lead soccer broadcast analyst, ahead of the tournament’s opener.

“That’s 643 players, with one ‘false positive’ case. So the league has done really well,” Twellman added.

A roll-with-the-punches attitude also exists with the A-League’s clubs as well – especially in Victoria, given the misadventures of the Melbourne clubs to join in with others in the Sydney hub.

“The past five days has once again demonstrated just how quickly the COVID-19 landscape can change. In particular, the events of Monday and Tuesday night have been incredibly frustrating and compromised our players and staff,” said Melbourne Victory CEO Trent Jacobs in a release issued by the club on Friday, referring to the stop-start attempts for Victory, City, and Western United to get into New South Wales before the NSW state government closed its borders off to Melburnians.

“Our players and staff are looking forward to getting to Sydney for the resumption of the A-League season, and our focus will remain on preparing for our five remaining matches and finishing the season strongly,” Jacobs added.

And what happens when any upsurge in COVID-19 cases do happen to occur in an insular area, such as in a hub? In the case of FC Dallas being forced to head back to Texas after its Orlando bubble expulsion, it may boil down to the fate being out of your hands even if you take on all of the protocols and precautions.

“I’m proud that we all tried to follow all of the protocols leading up to the travel, and when we got here to Orlando,” FC Dallas coach Luchi Gonzales told ESPN on Saturday.

“There are things you cannot control, but in hindsight, we probably needed to have a test [the week before] on the Friday before our Saturday travel – we were tested on the Thursday, and we had all negative tests.

“We did train two consecutive times when we were in Orlando, when we had those positive tests, so that maybe helped spread it.

“All lessons learned, the players learned from it, the league learned from it, and here we are, learning and growing and being stronger from it,” added Gonzales.

In the end, it may come down to the masses being blessed that soccer games are being played again – but with that blessing comes lessons and tactics in the ways of risk management and assessment that MLS has applied, and the A-League can observe and learn from.

“It’s a nervous energy. The players are excited to be competing in live games, and games that mean something, instead of kicking each other in training. And you still have the COVID-19 pandemic surrounding it all,” Twellman said on ESPN’s flagship SportsCenter news program on Saturday.

“Obviously they want to be excited that they are competing and playing games [in Orlando], playing games and getting ready for a regular season afterwards, but there’s also this reservation that they need to be extra careful because of COVID-19 that’s in and around the bubble,” Twellman added.


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