MLS targeting May return date with potential for a December MLS Cup

After pushing the big match to November last season, the recent coronavirus outbreak will force the league to get creative with scheduling

MLS announced on Thursday that the league has extended the suspension of matches after previously announcing a 30-day hiatus in the wake of the coronavirus.

The league is now targeting a May 10 return date after a decision from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to cancel all mass gatherings of 50 or more people over the next eight weeks.

As of Wednesday, there have been a total of 7,000 confirmed cases across the U.S., including Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico, as well as 97 deaths, while Canada has had 690 confirmed cases.

With the decision to postpone, the MLS season could extend all the way through December after the league pushed the MLS Cup forward to November for the first time during the 2019 season.

The league always played into December to avoid the playoffs being played during fall’s international breaks, but last year’s switch to single-leg ties earlier in the year saw the league conclude with MLS Cup on November 10. As a result, the postseason was wrapped up before players departed for the November international window while the league is also in a position to avoid cold-weather MLS Cups after recent matches in Toronto and Kansas City were played in below-freezing temperatures.

This year’s finale is scheduled for November 7, which would be the earliest MLS Cup in two decades.

“In accordance with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance to postpone events involving more than 50 people over the next eight weeks, Major League Soccer has extended the postponement of its matches during this period of time,” the league said in a statement.

“MLS remains focused on playing the entire 2020 season and is evaluating all options, including pushing back the end of the season and playing MLS Cup in December, as the league did prior to the 2019 season. The league is also identifying other available dates.

“Throughout this process, MLS will continue to prioritize the safety of our fans, players, employees and partners and to coordinate with federal and local public health authorities as well as other sporting organizations.”

Unlike most leagues, MLS does have plenty of flexibility when it comes to schedule as long as the league is back playing before the summer months hit. In recent years, MLS’ schedule has been altered to streamline the postseason while also being more respectful of international breaks.

Playing during what will be a quiet summer internationally does give the league flexibility to schedule without worrying about the Euros or Copa America with teams that share stadiums with NFL franchises not truly impacted until August/September. Teams like New York City FC, who share a stadium with the New York Yankees, could face scheduling issues, though, especially if MLB is also forced into streamlining their season.

According to Yahoo Sports, the league greatly prefers to keep the scheduled 34-match season together if possible as opposed to a shortened campaign. Unlike most American leagues, MLS’ revenue is driven highly by ticket sales, not TV deals, and shortening the season would have a massive financial impact on each club.

Government decisions could play a part in how many matches can be played and whether they have to be played behind closed doors, but the league’s preference is clear.