I probably don’t remember any dreams that I have over the course of a night. I know that I have them, I know sometimes they’re scary or horny or whatever, but I almost never remember what happens in them. Maybe small, little bits of them stick around in my memory – an image, a character, a feeling. A year out, I remember The MLS is Back Tournament of 2020 in the same way. A weird name, a huge Adidas logo at midfield, FC Cincinnati players pretending to drive a school bus celebrating a goal that got called back. Characters like Chris Mueller, Joao Moutinho, Thomas Hasal. A feeling of confusion that still hasn’t quite left.
I know that the tournament did indeed happen, it’s just one of the most confusing memories that I have of the last year. When we look back at the four controlled-environment (I genuinely hate the word “bubble” and will not use it, to get that out of the way) ‘return to play’ tournaments of 2020 in the US (NWSL, MLS, NBA, WNBA) I believe that the MLS is Back tournament will be remembered as the strangest of the four. The NBA finished the season already in progress. The WNBA played its entire season. The NWSL made it clear that their tournament was a stand-alone thing and it had no significant effect on the Fall Series of late 2020.
MLS is Back, I think at the start, was supposed to be a sort of fluid thing in that regard. Either they couldn’t return to play in home markets after the tournament had finished, in which case ‘hey, we crowned somebody a champion!’ and they could give the CCL slots to the teams that finished in the top four and let Canada figure their slot out on their own. If they decided at some point it was profitable or feasible enough to go ahead, then they would (and they did), and instead everybody played three group stage games for potential playoff seeding, plus some teams played knockout round games for the hell of it. Portland went home with a trophy and there were live games on ESPN, UniMas, and Fox Sports 1 for the entire month of July.
Many of the details I feel have lost themselves to time, fittingly or otherwise. I barely remember the events of even the most important matches, even though I remember watching them with intent. I can remember a few specific auxiliary details in their place. That Cincinnati bus-driving celebration that I mentioned earlier was spawned because Taylor Twellman had mentioned offhandedly in a halftime segment earlier that week “Who’s driving the bus at FC Cincinnati?” I don’t know why that stuck with me. Probably because Cincinnati vastly outperformed themselves in MLS both prior to July 2020 and since July 2020. They’ve literally never been as good as an MLS team as they were for three weeks locked in a hotel in Orlando. It came down to a penalty shootout against Portland in the round of sixteen that knocked them out.
Remember there was that Twitter account? “MLS Covid Cup” (mentioned briefly in this Guardian article though the account was apparently deleted in the fall of 2020)? Allegedly run by an insider (a player, allegedly) from within the complex itself. The account was convinced that there was a conspiracy between owners and the league’s front office that effectively only wanted to run the first match as proof of concept of the potential of the innovative advertising techniques (huge Adidas logo at midfield and virtual tarps with ads on them covering the stands) and innovative camera direction (uncomfortably far away from the field of play) and then shut the whole thing down afterwards, as opposed to actually receiving the TV revenue money from playing the tournament.
In retrospect, there were many interesting teams, especially looking on from a year later and seeing where the momentum that started in this tournament ended up taking them – Orlando City looked like they had finally become a real team, Philadelphia completed their turn from being the ‘promising’ team they’d looked like for the prior three seasons to becoming a legitimate challenger on the league-wide stage, Atlanta United started a tendency towards mediocrity that has continued to this day, the volatility of San Jose under Matias Almeyda was intensified. Maybe the least interesting team all things considered was the one that won it all, the Timbers, who won the tournament off of the virtue of consistency and depth.
The most interesting team, at least in my eyes, was the Vancouver Whitecaps. They began the tournament by dropping a 3-1 lead to the aforementioned San Jose, beaten at the death by a Shea Salinas goal in the 98th minute
Which led to the deployment of Biofreeze spray as a sort of makeshift flare by a team trainer
It was a bizarre match to see, especially knowing that it went well-past midnight where it was held on the East coast (I was on the West Coast at the time and remembered it feeling like it was running past when I wanted to go to bed). It was truly the first time I could remember getting that “After Dark” sports strangeness since the beginning of the pandemic. Vancouver was on the receiving end of that loss, got positively stomped by Seattle in the next game, ending with a -4 goal differential that would have had them knocked fully out of the tournament had they not inexplicably beaten Chicago 2-0 on the final match of the group stage, with both goals coming from players that hadn’t started and a shutout coming from rookie academy product Thomas Hasal. This match also happened during one of the early morning slots, forcing fans in Vancouver to get up at 7am to watch it.
The most bizarre thing about that match was that a hugely consequential goal, one that would have pushed Chicago into the knockout stages ahead of Vancouver, was disallowed because of a debatable CJ Sapong handball.
If this goal had not been disallowed by the VAR (who, during this tournament was mic’d up in an experimental directorial decision. Broadcasters didn’t keep doing this after the tournament, probably for good reason), Chicago would have ended up with 3 points and a -2 goal differential, enough to put them into the round of sixteen. Instead, Vancouver ended up with 3 points and a -2 goal differential.
Then, even after all of that, they go into the round of sixteen and play one of the other most bizarre matches of the tournament against Sporting KC, a nil-nil match that was kept nil-nil by a heroic performance by Hasal, overcoming his team’s defensive woes and head trauma caused by a camera in the net to send the match to penalties, where the Whitecaps finally faltered
Portland did win the whole event, they won the final over the surging Orlando team that was able to keep their good momentum up through the first half of this year so far. Oddly enough, I barely remember that. I remember watching it but I don’t remember any of the specifics. What I remember were the moments and figures that were a bit off, a bit weird, the ones that represented the serendipitous, special, inexplicable moments that sports can provide especially during a period of time where every day felt exactly the same.
After a full year separated from this event, now with a few months of effectively typical matches with stands full of spectators and all the other bells and whistles under our belts, midway through what has proven to be a quite exciting MLS season, the tournament feels so, so far away. The difference between what I’ve felt attending Sporting KC matches over the past few months and what I felt sitting alone in my apartment watching these games is severe, and I obviously hope that we never have to go through another situation like this ever again. But we had them in the moment, and I appreciated them in the moment, and that was enough.