FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Let the games begin. Again.
Wednesday morning brought the much-anticipated official announcement that the New England Revolution – along with the rest of Major League Soccer – will return to play in the unique MLS is Back Tournament, running from July 8 to August 11 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.
It’s been more than three months since the Revs were in action – playing to a 1-1 draw with Chicago Fire FC on March 7 at Gillette Stadium – and those months have been rife with uncertainty, but now, with a legitimate target date and games soon on the schedule, excitement is building for MLS’ return.
“It’s huge. Having that date in mind and being able to look to the future and see a clear pathway to what you’re working for and your end goal is so important,” said goalkeeper Matt Turner. “We were pretty much gone for three months and we weren’t really sure what it was going to look like.”
“With all the uncertainty that’s been around the world the last three, four months, it’s definitely nice to have a date to look forward to – something that we as a team can work towards,” echoed Scott Caldwell. “We’ll be working together to be as fit and ready as possible come tournament time.”
The Revs will have approximately four more weeks to get themselves ready for games in Orlando – slightly shorter than a typical six-week preseason – but they began hosting voluntary individual workouts almost three weeks ago, and earlier this week became one of the first professional sports teams in North America to return to full team training.
There will be challenges in those preparations. Unlike a typical preseason there won’t be any exhibition matches on the schedule, so the Revs will need to replicate 11-v-11 situations on their own. They’ll also be preparing to play games in the Florida heat of July and August, so fitness will be paramount.
“I will say that it’s important that we’re more physical little by little,” captain Carles Gil said via translator. “It won’t be easy with all the time off, but it’s fine. [Monday] was the first day we were together, and if we prepare well, then hopefully in a month we’ll be ready when it starts.”
One aspect of the tournament that should help in that regard is the change in substitution rules, as teams will be allowed to dress 23 players each match (as opposed to the usual 18) and will be allowed to make up to five substitutions (as opposed to the usual three).
“It’s going to be a challenge. I’m excited to see how it all shakes out,” said Brandon Bye. “I think the different sub rules and stuff like that are going to put different factors into play, but at the end of the day, we’re going to be playing, and I’m excited for that.”
Per the tournament format the Revs will play three games as part of a group stage, with the top 16 teams from the group stage advancing to the Round of 16. Group stage matches will count towards the regular season standings, while the knockout rounds will be incentivized by bonuses as part of a $1.1 million prize pool, as well as a 2021 Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League berth for the tournament winner.
New England will be in a group of either four or six teams – all from the Eastern Conference – with the draw to determine their group held on Thursday, June 11, at 3:30 p.m. ET (WATCH LIVE).
“It should be interesting; unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of before,” said Turner. “But Bruce (Arena) coached the (U.S. Men’s) National Team and he’s got experience in those types of tournaments and those types of situations, so he’ll know what it takes to get out of the group stage and into the knockout rounds.
“We just want to go out there and make our fans proud every single day. We’re going to work our hardest and I know everybody’s excited about the prospect of the tournament. We’re going to go down there and try to win the thing, because why else do we play this game than to be competitive and to win?”
MLS also announced on Wednesday morning that following the completion of the tournament, the league plans to continue the regular season with a revised schedule in home markets, followed by the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs and, ultimately, MLS Cup to crown a champion for the league’s 25th season.