Despite the spikes in Florida, the COVID-19 fears across the country, and numerous players testing positive, the MLS is Back Tournament is upon us — the first major professional North American team-sports league to return to action from the coronavirus hiatus.
New York City FC (NYCFC) helps kick off the tournament on Thursday morning (9 a.m. ET, ESPN) against the Philadelphia Union following the primetime opener Wednesday night between the hosts, Orlando City FC, and expansion side Inter Miami.
Despite losing their opening two matches before the pandemic hit, NYCFC is believed to have of the strongest teams in MLS and deemed one of the favorites to win the entire tournament.
The problem is, they were unable to get going under new head coach Ronny Deila, failing to score a goal in their first 180 minutes of play this season.
Still, they feature last year’s MLS assist leader in Maxi Moralez, who is one of the engines of NYCFC’s midfield, and Heber — the Brazilian striker who netted 15 goals last season, good for fifth in the league.
Philadelphia offers a stiff test in the opener, though. These are the two strongest teams in the group based on last year’s standings.
NYCFC finished first in the Eastern Conference while the Union was nine points adrift in third.
At the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Disney World where the tournament is being played, Philadelphia’s aggressive midfield led by Brazilian talisman Ilsinho is expected to wreak havoc on the opposition.
But Deila might have mother nature on his side.
“A diamond in the midfield, very aggressive… two strikers go very direct, so we have to prepare for that,” Deila told reporters on a Zoom conference call. “But at the same time, it’s going be  degrees here. It’s going to be a different game from playing at a normal temperature. I think the game is going to be different from that high energy that is possible to play when it’s colder.”
When it comes to his squad, though, Deila was pleased with how training has gone since arriving in the Orlando bubble on July 2.
“The whole squad is in really good shape and we have some good competition,” he said, despite current events looming in the background.
While MLS has tried to keep its players and personnel safe in isolation within Disney World, coronavirus has still swept through multiple teams.
FC Dallas was forced to withdraw from the tournament after nine players and one staff member tested positive for COVID-19. NYCFC was originally supposed to play FC Dallas in an exhibition match on July 4, but the recent spikes in coronavirus in Florida prompted the team to push back its Orlando arrival from June 27 to July 2. All teams must be in Florida for at least one week before playing competitive matches.
Wednesday’s originally-scheduled second match between another expansion side, Nashville SC, and the Chicago Fire in Group A was postponed after five Nashville players tested positive since arriving in Orlando.
A Group C match between Toronto FC and DC United was postponed from July 10 to July 12 because Toronto pushed back its travel schedule.
Still, Deila’s players are still able to focus on soccer.
“I think the boys are dealing very well with it. We have a good atmosphere in the group. We’re ready to play and we’re happy to start playing games,” he said. “They are of course concerned… but we all agree that we think so far it’s been good here. Hopefully, we can keep on doing that. If everything is safe, we can focus on playing football.”