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Coronavirus pandemic could force MLS Cup to be played in December at a neutral site

The coronavirus pandemic could postpone the 2020 MLS Cup until December. (Ira L. Black/Getty)

The coronavirus pandemic could move Major League Soccer to postpone its championship match until late December and play MLS Cup in a neutral, warm-weather city, a source with knowledge of the situation told Yahoo Sports.

Sports leagues around the world are being forced to consider all options and scrambling to change plans on the fly in the wake of the global COVID-19 outbreak. MLS was the first after the NBA to suspend its season, initially announcing a 30-day pause beginning March 12. But after the United States Centers for Disease Control, or CDC, recommended Sunday that mass gatherings be reduced to 50 people for the next eight weeks, the U.S. and Canada’s top soccer league will likely have to extend its break into the middle of May at the earliest.

The 2020 MLS campaign was less than two weeks old when it abruptly went on hiatus along with virtually every other sport last week. But while the health crisis has already forced the outright cancellation of the NCAA’s men’s and women’s basketball tournaments and other annual events, even a two-month shutdown wouldn’t necessarily force MLS to eliminate games from each of its 26 teams’ 34-match slate, the source said.

Compared to the NBA and NHL in North America and the top soccer leagues in Europe, all of which are nearing the end of their 2019-20 seasons, MLS has significant flexibility — and a clear precedent — when it comes to tweaking its remaining schedule. This year’s MLS Cup is still slated for Nov. 7 at the home of the higher-seeded finalist. If the championship contest were to go ahead as planned, it would be the league’s earliest finale in almost 20 years.

MLS staged its decisive contest in December from 2012-18 before moving it up by four weeks beginning last year. The switch was intended to avoid playing the league’s marquee event in freezing temperatures — as it did in Kansas City in 2013 and in Toronto in 2016 and ‘17 — and wrap the season before FIFA’s mid-November international break, which had wreaked havoc on its playoffs in years past.

MLS officials would rather return to a December final than eliminate games — an understandable position since, unlike higher-profile leagues, ticket sales and not television rights fees are its main source of revenue. For the same reason, MLS owners would also prefer not to play matches without fans in attendance, an approach the UEFA Champions League took before it suspended play. Obviously those options would have to be reconsidered if governments extend social distancing measures into the summer or beyond.

The 2020 MLS Cup could be played as late as Dec. 19, the source said. That’s nine days later than any of the league’s previous finals. Given the cold weather in its northern markets that time of year, a one-time return to a neutral site — think Florida, Southern California or Atlanta, which has drawn huge MLS crowds in a stadium that features a retractable roof — would probably be required. The first 16 MLS Cups were hosted by a predetermined market before the league started awarding the title favorite home-field advantage in 2012.

No MLS player had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Tuesday evening. The NBA shut down on March 11 after Utah Jazz forward Rudy Gobert was diagnosed with the respiratory illness. Other athletes in the NBA, NHL, English Premier League, Italian Serie A and with Major League Baseball’s affiliates have since also tested positive.

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