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Major League Soccer To Begin Its Special Tournament Despite Safety Concerns

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Major League Soccer is back on the field tonight. The league paused its season back in March. Players and staff have flown to Florida, where the teams will play at a sports complex in the Walt Disney World resort. But coronavirus is complicating things. The league has already sent one team home and postponed the matches of another due to some positive test results. NPR's Gus Contreras has more.

GUS CONTRERAS, BYLINE: The MLS is Back event was envisioned as a summer World Cup-style tournament in Orlando. Three games a day for a few weeks - a soccer junkie's heaven. Ten players testing positive on a single team wasn't part of the plan though, like what happened with FC Dallas. Two players tested positive when they got to Florida on June 27, and the cases started ticking up in the following days inside the bubble. So the league decided to exclude Dallas from the tournament. League commissioner Don Garber told ESPN they had to.

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DON GARBER: Once we saw that the numbers of players coming in from Dallas were testing the way they were, it was a fairly easy decision.

CONTRERAS: Five players for a second team - Nashville SC - have also tested positive, and the club are waiting on second tests for a few others. The league has postponed their first game and is determining whether Nashville can stay in the tournament. There is real pressure to get this going. According to the league's estimates, MLS stands to lose $1 billion in revenue if it doesn't get restarted.

HERCULEZ GOMEZ: Imagine if there was no tournament. You'd lose those sponsorship dollars. And if you don't have those sponsorship dollars, I don't know how realistically these teams survive, how this league survives, how these players survive.

CONTRERAS: Herculez Gomez knows what it's like in the MLS. He played for six different teams and is a current analyst for ESPN FC.

GOMEZ: We still don't know enough about this virus, so the uncertainty of that would make me very uneasy if I were a player.

CONTRERAS: And the current players really are on the fence about coming back.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: It's Chicharito Hernandez.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: And Vela goes for the chip and scores.

CONTRERAS: Just look at how two star players made the call - Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez and Carols Vela. The fan favorites both have pregnant wives at home. Hernandez is playing and Vela isn't. One of the most outspoken players about the bubble happens to be Vela's teammate. Here's Bradley Wright-Phillips, who is playing, talking to The Sports Bubble podcast.

BRADLEY WRIGHT-PHILLIPS: They've taken us all to a place now in a bubble, where you've got to stay in your room away from your families. You know, some people got some real-life issues to deal with, and you just got to leave your family for how long? But I guess money talks, my friend.

CONTRERAS: These are all uncharted waters for everyone involved. There's not only the COVID-19 worry, but there's also injury concerns. Players normally use pre-season and scrimmage matches to get their bodies ready for the long season. Now, jumping in without it, they could face a higher risk of injury. Montreal coach Thierry Henry has been keeping an eye on leagues outside the U.S. that have returned.

THIERRY HENRY: I watched the German league. I watched the Premier League. You watch any league, guys are getting injured because it's tough to prepare, stop, re-prepare and play. It's a tough one.

CONTRERAS: Despite the risks to the players, Herculez Gomez says it's a gamble they need to make to save the league.

GOMEZ: Major League Soccer is in its 25th season, 26 clubs. It's gaining ground, but it's not financially strong enough that it doesn't play this year and it won't have an impact on these clubs, on these owners.

CONTRERAS: The first game tonight is between Orlando and Inter Miami.

Gus Contreras, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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