MLS makes its troubled return as Orlando City and Inter Miami open league tournament

It began with Orlando City defeating Inter Miami, 2-1, on a field typically used by youth teams of various sports and for other festivities. There were no spectators — only support staff, broadcast crews, security, a dozen media members and a few coaches and officials unaffiliated with the competing teams. All wore masks.

For TV purposes, the sidelines were draped in blue screens and cranes reached over the field at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Substitutes and coaches kept their distance from one another.

On the expansive Disney grounds, technicians oblivious to soccer’s rebirth continued setting up for the restart of the NBA season late this month at the adjacent arenas.

Intersecting with global protests, MLS also marked its return with a pregame demonstration involving black players from around the league wearing T-shirts supporting Black Lives Matter and other causes. Gloved fists were raised, a nod to John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

“”It was very powerful to put my fist up and to be there on the field with so many people that are trying to make a change in this country,” Miami forward Juan Agudelo said.

Orlando captain Nani, who scored the winning goal deep into second-half stoppage time, said, “We all want to change the world. We want a better world. The ceremony was beautiful.”

The 22 starters took a knee on the center circle, an act that has occurred on fields in Europe and at the National Women’s Soccer League tournament in Utah. The setting here was silent, except for the rumble of generators.

On the lower back of game jerseys, players were invited to post names, such as “George Floyd,” or messages, such as “Freedom” and “Amor.”

When the ceremony ended, there was polite applause.

Nashville’s first match, against Chicago, was supposed to take place late Wednesday. The outbreak, however, prevented the team from practicing for the past week and forced a postponement.

D.C. United’s opener was moved to Sunday morning from Friday night because its opponent, Toronto FC, had testing issues that delayed its arrival. Nashville’s exit, expected Thursday, would force further schedule changes.

More than 1,300 players and staff are living in a so-called bubble at a Disney resort three miles from the sports complex. As of Tuesday, only one player who isn’t with Dallas or Nashville had tested positive since the arrival in the Orlando area, the league said.

Delegations were tested regularly for weeks leading to the tournament and tested every other day at the hotel, which is also serving as a health clinic and activity center for the sequestered players.

The players also said they are excited to resume competition after the season was suspended in March following two weekends of games. MLS is aiming to resume the regular season in home markets later this summer, but given the health emergency, nothing is for sure.

Without spectators, all leagues are, in essence, performing in TV studios. MLS’s broadcast partners — namely ESPN, which is owned by Disney — introduced innovations to bring audiences closer to the players.

On location, though, there was no atmosphere. Players and coaches were audible from long distances. It had the look and feel of a preseason friendly, though merciless tackles were a reminder of the seriousness.

Orlando and first-year Miami are a rivalry in its infancy and, given the tournament’s location, the natural choice for the opening match.

The teams haven’t played competitively in a long time, and on Wednesday it showed. The choppy opener took a turn less than two minutes into the second half when Miami’s Juan Agudelo put away Victor Ulloa’s cross.

Later, Miami’s Andres Reyes appeared to have trouble breathing after Dom Dwyer’s blow to his neck. He was treated for several minutes before being removed on a stretcher.

Orlando equalized in the 70th minute when Nani crossed to Chris Mueller for a sliding finish.

Nani scored the winning goal seven minutes into the 10 additional minutes, connecting from close range on a ball that deflected to him for a clear shot.

“It’s true we didn’t have the fans, that the stadium was empty,” Nani said. “Today we made the noise.”

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