Atlanta United and the MLS hope to see their fans and athletes back out soon

Illustration by Monique R | The Signal

Major League Soccer, like most other sports leagues, is currently amid an almost two-month-long absence from play due to COVID-19 concerns.

While the league has set a tentative return date of June 8, there are still many questions surrounding the future involvement of fans and how many games teams will play per week. 

MLS Commissioner Don Garber told ESPN that the league would try and play as many games as possible, potentially pushing the MLS Cup into December. Atlanta United FC President Daren Eales echoed those statements, saying that pushing the season into December would be very “easy” and something the league has done in prior years. 

But with the season just getting underway, that would mean three to possibly four games a week for teams that have had little time to gel.

Atlanta United reporter Joe Patrick said that the idea of starting the season back up any time soon seems unlikely. 

“When I talked to Daren Eales in a conference call last week, I asked him a very similar question: What is the date that play can resume?” Patrick recalled. “There didn’t really seem to be an answer to that.”

The obvious problem with trying to pack in the 30-plus games remaining in the MLS season is injuries. In order for scheduling to go as planned, games would be played three to four times a week. That means a significant increase in travel, raising the chances of contracting COVID-19. 

Even if the MLS figures out a way to rework the schedule, it seems most likely that fans will be absent from games for some time. 

“I don’t think fans will be in stadiums from the jump when the league restarts,” Patrick said. “It would be too big of a leap for the league to make going from no play at all to a stadium full of fans.”

On an optimistic note, Atlanta has had plenty of time for its star players to heal up. While the return of Josef Martinez, who suffered a torn ACL in the opening weeks of regular season play, is still uncertain, defenders Miles Robinson, Franco Escobar and Edgar Castillio should all be close to healthy when play resumes. 

Martinez, who had his ACL repaired by the well-respected sports doctor Freddie Fu, was fortunate as the surgery took place on March 18, the same day that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services announced that all non-essential procedures should be delayed due to the novel coronavirus.

“[Martinez] barely got the surgery in on time,” Patrick said. “If he hadn’t got it in, he would not have had the surgery done till late summer.”

While sports leagues across the globe continue to wait and hear official recommendations from different health organizations, MLS remains optimistic that it can not only return to play relatively soon but that it can also pack in a significant portion of the season’s games into a new schedule. 

Only time can tell, and as recent efforts by UFC president Dana White have shown, it’s going to be difficult for professional sports to resume quickly.