MLS Competition Guidelines 2020

Conferences

MLS has 26 clubs that will compete during the league’s 25th season in 2020. Conference alignment is as follows:

Western Conference Eastern Conference
Colorado Rapids
FC Dallas
Houston Dynamo
LAFC
LA Galaxy
Minnesota United FC
Portland Timbers
Real Salt Lake
San Jose Earthquakes
Seattle Sounders
Sporting Kansas City
Vancouver Whitecaps
Atlanta United
Chicago Fire
FC Cincinnati
Columbus Crew SC
D.C. United
Inter Miami CF
Nashville SC
Montreal Impact
New England Revolution
New York City FC
New York Red Bulls
Orlando City SC
Philadelphia Union
Toronto FC

Regular Season

Each of the 26 MLS clubs will play a maximum of 23 matches in the MLS Regular Season, which will consist of the following:

  • The first two matches of league play (Feb. 29-March 8)
  • Three matches in the MLS is Back Tournament Group Stage presented by Heineken Up to 18 matches (a maximum of nine home and nine away) during the continuation of play in home markets following the MLS is Back Tournament *Note: FC Dallas and Nashville SC play three matches against each other during the continuation of play in home markets to make up for their three missed matches during the MLS is Back Tournament Group Stage presented by Heineken.
  • The top 10 Clubs from the Eastern Conference and the top eight from the Western Conference will qualify for the MLS postseason.

POINT SYSTEM: Clubs will receive three points for a win, one point for a tie and zero points for a loss.

GAME DAY ROSTERS: Each team can select a maximum of 20 players (11 starters and nine substitutes) for its official match roster. Teams are allowed a maximum of five substitutions per game during the MLS is Back Tournament and the continuation of the MLS Regular Season in home markets. Clubs may use up to five substitutions over the course of three events, excluding half-time, but including cooling and/or drink breaks.

TEAM BENCHES

  • Both the Home Team and Visiting Team will be allowed a maximum of 19 individuals on their respective club benches (nine named substitute players, nine staff members, one club physician).
    • Two Certified Athletic Trainers (ATCs) must be named to the nine-person bench personnel in the official match roster.
    • If the Visiting Team has no Official Team Physician present, a maximum of 18 total individuals (nine staff and nine named substitute players) will be allowed on the bench.
    • Bench personnel must adhere to mandated health and safety protocols.
    • The Home Team will be required to have its Team Physician attend each MLS match and that individual will be seated on the Home Team bench.
      • All such individuals seated in the bench area must be listed on the Official Match Roster
  • Suspended players and/or coaches may not be in the bench area, locker room or on field level.

GAME CLOCK: The official game time for all MLS games will be managed on the field by the referee. If necessary, the referee may also allot additional time (a.k.a. "stoppage time”) at the end of each period (first half, second half, and if applicable, first extra time period and second extra time period during playoff matches) to allow for injuries, time-wasting and/or other disturbances.

The Stadium clock will start at kickoff of each half. The clock will count upward from 0:00 to 45:00 in the first half and from 45:00 to 90:00 in the second half.

For statistical purposes, the minutes for goals, substitutions, yellow cards, etc., will be listed from the first minute until the 90th minute. A goal scored at 15 minutes 10 seconds will be listed as having been scored in the 16th minute. Events occurring during stoppage time will follow the international norm by being marked with a "+" sign and the additional minutes. For example, a goal scored three minutes into first half stoppage time will be officially identified as happening at "45’+3’".

COOLING AND DRINK BREAKS: MLS mandates the use of cooling breaks if the WetBulb Globe Temperature (WBGT) measures 82 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. Additionally, the referee can, at any time, implement a discretionary drink break during cases in which player safety is determined to be at risk.

The Fourth Official will be responsible for reading the WBGT at the kickoff spot at the conclusion of the pre-match warmup. A second reading will occur after the whistle blows for the end of the first half to determine if a hydration break is needed.

Implementation and control of the breaks will be managed solely by the referee:

  • Each cooling break will last up to 90 seconds in length, and each drink break will last up to one-minute in length. Cooling and drink breaks will be held approximately 30 minutes into each half (around the 30th and 75th minute, respectively). The ball must be out of play for either the cooling or drink break to commence.
  • The clock will continue to run, and all time allotted for the break will be added to stoppage time.

MATCH POSTPONEMENT: Matches may be postponed when circumstances exist such that continuation of play would pose a threat to the safety of participants or spectators. In cases where a match is postponed prior to kick-off, but after the Official Match Roster exchange, clubs will be permitted to change their rosters regardless of whether the rescheduled match occurs on a date prior to or after the next match in either clubs’ schedule.

View the complete match postponement guidelines

PLAYING FIELD DIMENSIONS AND MARKINGS: The match will be played on a field that remains the same size throughout the MLS Regular Season and Postseason, unless a change is approved by the League and the Visiting Team is notified at least 72 hours in advance of the match. The dimensions and markings of the field will conform to MLS standards and The International Football Association Board (The IFAB) Laws of the Game. No logos on the field, goal nets or corner flags will be allowed without prior League, and where applicable, United States Soccer Federation (USSF) and Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) written approval.

Except where MLS-approved stadium design renders it impossible or impractical, the playing field will be at a minimum 70 yards wide by 110 yards long.

BALL STANDS: Ball Stands will be implemented in all matches during the 2020 MLS season as an opportunity to increase effective match time, as well as health and safety of players, and to reduce match manipulation and gamesmanship. All MLS stadiums will provide a total of 13 Ball Stands, with five positioned on the sideline opposite the benches, two outside the home team’s technical area, two outside the away team’s technical area, and two positioned behind each goal line at a maximum distance of 14 yards apart. The Fourth Official’s Table or fourteenth Ball Stand may be used between the benches.

Ball Retrieval

  • The team in possession of the restart can access Ball Stands...
  • Teams not in possession of the restart should not access Ball Stands.

Ball Stand Equipment

If a Ball Stand is broken or becomes inoperable during the match, the home club will be responsible for immediately installing the onsite replacement.

VENUE MEDICAL DIRECTOR: A Venue Medical Director (VMD) will attend every match during the MLS Regular Season and Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs.

Designated by the Home Team’s Chief Medical Officer (CMO), the VMD is a licensed physician who is given the authority to make the final medical decision in a match for players on both the Home and Visiting Teams (i.e., concussion protocol).

In-Game Location

  • The VMD is required to be positioned at the Fourth Official’s table for the duration of the match.
    • The VMD may move away from the Fourth Official’s table to confer with medical professionals and/or technical staffs as needed but must return to the Fourth Official’s table.
    • The VMD will not interfere with the duties of those seated at the Fourth Official’s table.

Officiating and Disciplinary Protocol

REFEREES: All referees in MLS are either USSF or CSA registered match officials, who are trained, assigned and evaluated by the Professional Referee Organization (PRO).

REGULAR SEASON CAUTIONS AND SUSPENSIONS: Fines and suspensions will be levied against players for yellow card accumulations during the Regular Season as follows:

  • Player accrues five yellow cards: $250 fine and a suspension from his next MLS Regular Season Match.
  • Player accrues an additional three yellow cards (eight total): $500 fine and a suspension from his next MLS Regular Season Match.
  • Player accrues an additional three yellow cards (11 total): $750 fine and a suspension from his next MLS Regular Season Match.
  • Player accrues an additional two yellow cards (13 total): $1,000 fine and a suspension from his next MLS Regular Season Match.
  • For each two yellow cards after the player’s fourth suspension, the player will be suspended from his next MLS Regular Season Match and his fine will be doubled (e.g., fifth yellow card accumulation suspension: $2,000 fine)

Note: Yellow Cards accrued during the first two matches of league play and during the MLS is Back Tournament Group Stage presented by Heineken will continue to accrue through the continuation of play in home markets (i.e., Five yellow cards will result in a one match suspension).

Any MLS is Back Tournament discipline not completed prior to the conclusion of the tournament will be applied to the next 2020 MLS Regular Season match(es).

GOOD BEHAVIOR INCENTIVE: A player will automatically reduce his yellow card accumulation total by one yellow card each time he appears in five consecutive matches without receiving a yellow card, red card or supplemental discipline in such matches. For clarity, a player cannot have a negative yellow card accumulation total; the Good Behavior Incentive can only reset to a zero-card total. This incentive will be automatically applied a maximum of three times throughout the course of the MLS Regular Season.

For example, if a player on his third caution of the season completes five consecutive matches without receiving a card or supplemental discipline, that player will have one yellow card caution removed from his cumulative total, leaving the player with a total of two yellow cards. This player now has two remaining Good Behavior Incentive opportunities for the MLS Regular Season. If that player completes five more consecutive matches without receiving a card or supplemental discipline, one more yellow card is removed from his cumulative total leaving the player with a total of one yellow card and one more Good Behavior Incentive opportunity.

Note: The Good Behavior Incentive shall apply to the continuation of play in home markets and carry over from previous Regular Season and MLS is Back Tournament matches in the Group Stage presented by Heineken, but not from matches in the MLS is Back Tournament Knockout Stage presented by Audi.

BENCH BEHAVIOR POLICY: Coaches, staff and substitute(d) players will be fined and/or suspended if they leave the bench to:

  • egregiously protest (as determined by the MLS Disciplinary Committee) an official’s decision AND/OR
  • express dissent toward an official.
  • PRO:
    • Under the 2019/20 IFAB Laws of the Game, bench personnel can be issued yellow and red cards in addition to the previous “ask-tell-dismiss” policy.
  • MLS Disciplinary Committee:
    • Disciplinary actions may include but are not limited to:
      • Coaches and/or players who leave the bench to protest an official’s decision.
      • Instances in which more than one coach leaves the bench to coach or issue instruction.
      • Note: Goal celebrations, substitutions and medical communication will be exempt from this policy.
      • Audio captured from field microphones and official’s wireless communications devices can be used to issue supplemental discipline.
    • Discipline
      • Clubs
        • The first violation will serve as the club’s official warning.
        • Any additional violations of the policy will result in fines and/or suspension.
      • Players
        • The first violation will serve as the player’s official warning.
        • Any additional violations of the policy will result in fines and/or suspension.
      • Additional Authority
        • The MLS Disciplinary Committee will have the authority waive the aforementioned warning and impose suspensions and/or fines on any incident it deems to be egregious.
  • Coaches, Team officials, and club staff members:
    • In all instances, coaches and all technical staff will generally be held to a higher professional standard than players.
    • A coach, technical staff member or team official guilty of misconduct may be issued a yellow card (caution) or red card (dismissal) by the Referee.
    • Any coach, technical staff member or team official dismissed from an MLS match by the Referee shall receive an automatic one-match suspension and fine.
    • Any coach, technical staff or team official acting in an unprofessional manner, in the opinion of the League, shall be subject to a fine and/or suspension as determined by the League Office.
    • As per The IFAB Laws of the Game, if the offender cannot be identified, the most senior coach in the technical area at the time of the incident will receive the yellow card or red card.
    • Major fines and/or suspensions, at the sole and absolute discretion of the League Office, shall be levied against players, coaches, or other tea officials for conduct detrimental to MLS (whether or not they were cautioned by the Referee for such match conduct).
  • Medical Staff:
    • Medical staff who are dismissed during a match will miss the remainder of that match and will be suspended for at least the club’s next match consistent with MLS Competition regulations. The League, at its sole discretion, can suspend any member of the medical staff retroactively if warranted.
      • If a suspension occurs because the medical staff has been found guilty of referee assault/abuse or an egregious act (as determined by the MLS Disciplinary Committee or the League Office), the medical staff member will not participate in any matchday related activities (e.g., player care) and is prohibited from entering the stadium tunnel area, locker rooms or field level at any time on matchday.

TEAM OFFICIAL REGULAR SEASON CAUTIONS AND SUSPENSIONS: The club will be responsible to track yellow card totals for team officials during the regular season and postseason. Fines and suspensions will be levied against team officials for yellow card accumulations during the Regular Season as follows:

  • Team Officials who accumulate three (3) yellow cards over the course of the Regular Season shall be fined and suspended for their next MLS Regular Season match.
  • Yellow Card Accumulation thresholds will reset at the beginning of each season.
  • The League Office may use discretion to apply any appropriate sanction regardless of the aforementioned recommendations.
  • Similar to the application of yellow card accumulation for players, yellow cards will reset at the end of the Regular Season (if a team qualifies for the Playoffs) and also before MLS Cup.

ENTERING THE FIELD OF PLAY: Bench personnel, including players, are prohibited from entering the field of play at any time (excluding medical staff needed to tend to an injury).

  • Non-Confrontational Incidents:
    • Any bench personnel, including substitute(d) players, who enter the field during a non-confrontational incident (as determined by the MLS Disciplinary Committee) will be issued a written warning for the first offense and be fined for subsequent violations.
  • Confrontational Incidents:
    • Any bench personnel, including substitute(d) players, who enter the field during a confrontational incident (as determined by the MLS Disciplinary Committee) will be suspended and fined.
  • Additional Authority:
    • The MLS Disciplinary Committee will have the authority to waive the warning and impose suspensions and/or fines on any non-confrontational incident it deems to be egregious and/or repeat behavior of an individual.

THROWING/KICKING AN OBJECT TOWARD A FAN(S): Any player(s) or staff member who throws (strikes) or kicks an object (e.g., ball) toward a fan(s) shall be sanctioned.

GAME SUSPENSION MANIPULATION: Players suspended from MLS Regular Season and postseason games who are released from their clubs for National Team duty will have their suspension(s) held in abeyance until the full completion of their international duty. International duty begins on the player’s call-in start date and ends upon the completion of the player’s final scheduled match during that specific FIFA International Window.

  • A player will have his suspension held in abeyance if: (i) he leaves prior to the opening of the international window and/or; (ii) he returns to the National Team during the same window.

DISCIPLINARY COMMITTEE: The mission of the MLS Disciplinary Committee is to ensure player safety and preserve the integrity and reputation of Major League Soccer.

The MLS Disciplinary Committee, comprised of three former MLS players (one designated by the MLS Players Association), one former MLS coach and one former MLS referee, will use the following parameters in determining when it can act under Video Review:

Parameter 1: Where the Officials Do Not See the Incident, and therefore do not have the opportunity to act, the Committee will review any and all evidence and may act to discipline a player (i.e., an off-the-ball offense).

*Parameter 1 incidents are subject to consideration of the Official Warning and Official Notices clause.

Parameter 2: Where the Officials See an Incident and Acts the Committee may review the play for further disciplinary action, over and above the mandatory suspension and fine. Supplemental discipline (suspension and/or fine) will be administered if the Committee believes:

  • The offense is egregious in nature; and/or
  • It must act to protect player safety; and/or
  • It must protect the integrity of the game; and/or
  • The player is guilty of repeat behavior.

*Parameter 2 incidents are subject to consideration of the Official Warning and Official Notices clause.

Parameter 3: Where the Officials See an Incident, and Do Not Act (i.e., no foul, foul, yellow card), the Committee shall act:

A. On incidents in which PRO acknowledges an on-field Referee/VAR error AND the Committee is unanimous at Red Card and One (1) match or Action Taken (simulation/embellishment) or;

B. On incidents in which discipline warrants at least a two (2) match suspension.

The play in question must be, in the unanimous opinion of the Committee from all available evidence:

  • a clear and unequivocal red card; and
  • egregious or repeat behavior in nature, and/or
  • such that the Committee must act to protect player safety or the integrity of the game.

*Parameter 3 incidents are subject to consideration of the Official Warning and Official Notices clause.

Official Warnings and Official Notices

As described in this section, an official disciplinary warning (an “Official Warning”) or an official disciplinary notice (an “Official Notice”) may be issued to a Player under the following circumstances:

  • Official Warnings: If the play in question was (A) in the unanimous opinion of the MLS Disciplinary Committee from all available evidence, an act of simulation or embellishment that resulted in a penalty kick or a red card (including a second yellow) to the opposing player or (B) (i) in the unanimous opinion of the MLS Disciplinary Committee from all available evidence, a clear and unequivocal red card and the offense was egregious in nature and/or the MLS Disciplinary Committee must act to protect player safety or the integrity of the game and (ii) the play was seen by the official but the Player was not issued a red card for the incident and PRO does not acknowledge a Referee/VAR error, the MLS Disciplinary Committee may issue an Official Warning to the Player with notice to the Player’s Club and the MLSPA.
    • If the Player, having already been given an Official Warning under this Section 1, subsequently commits a similar offense in the same League Season that is also reviewed by the MLS Disciplinary Committee under the same parameters and circumstances described in (A) or (B) above, the MLS Disciplinary Committee may deviate from Parameter 3 of Section VI.B.1 and issue the Player a one-game suspension.
  • Official Notices: In cases of repeat behavior (i.e., more than one instance in which the player was reviewed by the MLS Disciplinary Committee) for an offense of a similar nature in which the actions do not merit a suspension and/or fine, the MLS Disciplinary Committee may issue an Official Notice to the Player, with notice to the Player’s Club and the MLSPA, to indicate the Player’s behavior is being monitored for future offenses.
    • The purpose of the Official Notice in these instances is to notify the player that his conduct is approaching, but has not yet crossed, the “line” by which he may be disciplined.
    • The “probationary" period will be cleared by the player if he does not receive a yellow or red card or supplemental discipline in his next three (3) consecutive MLS Regular Season matches.
    • In subsequent instances of similar behavior, the fact that the Player has previously been issued an Official Notice for particular conduct may not be used by the MLS Disciplinary Committee as an aggravating factor when considering discipline. In other words, each play is reviewed by the MLS Disciplinary Committee on its own merits without consideration to prior instances of the same or similar conduct.

All Official Warnings and Official Notices will reset at the end of each League Season.

EXCEPTIONS TO PARAMETERS UNDER VIDEO REVIEW:

The MLS Disciplinary Committee may act on any incident in which Video Review is either non-operational, or the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) and/or Referee misapply the Video Review Manual protocol.

  • In instances when Video Review is non-operational, or the VAR and/or Referee misapply the Video Review protocol, the MLS Disciplinary Committee may act according to the above listed parameters, except there shall be no minimum match suspension threshold to act.
  • Non-reviewable situations of potential misconduct, such as, but not limited to, simulation/embellishment, mass confrontation, public criticisms, the use of offensive, insulting or abusive language and/or violating the Anti-Discrimination and Harassment Policy will be adjudicated according to the above listed parameters.
  • The MLS Disciplinary Committee will generally follow the above parameters. However, the Commissioner still maintains the authority to determine whether on-field misconduct has occurred, and can issue supplemental discipline, including fines and suspensions, for off-field misconduct deemed detrimental to the reputation and public image of MLS.

Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs

At the end of the 2020 MLS Regular Season, the top 10 teams from the Eastern Conference and top eight teams from the Western Conference (18 Clubs total) will qualify for the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs. The Audi MLS Cup Playoffs will again consist of single-elimination matches hosted by the higher-seeded team and follow a straight bracket format through MLS Cup on Dec. 12.

QUALIFICATION:

In expansion of the postseason for 2020, 18 clubs will compete in the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs, eight teams from the 12-team Western Conference and 10 teams from the 14-team Eastern Conference.

The team awarded the highest position in the MLS standings will be the team with the greatest number of points (three points for a win, one point for a tie, zero points for a loss). In the event that all 26 teams do not end the season with the same number of matches played, qualification for the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs will be determined by points earned on a per match basis, or points per game.

In the event that two or more teams finish the regular season with an equal number of points the following tiebreakers will be used. If points per match are used, the tiebreakers will be used on a per match basis.

  1. Total number of wins per match
  2. Goal Differential (GD) per match (Goals For per match minus Goals Against per match)
  3. Goals For (GF) per match
  4. Fewest Disciplinary Points* per match
  5. Away Goals Differential per Away match (Away Goals For per Away match minus Away Goals Against per Away match)
  6. Away Goals For per Away match
  7. Home Goals Differential per Home match (Home Goals For per Home match minus Home Goals Against per Home match)
  8. Home Goals For per Home match
  9. Coin Toss (tie of two clubs) or Drawing of Lots (tie of three or more clubs)

When two or more teams are tied in the standings on points per game, the above tiebreakers will be used until one team ranks ahead of the other(s).

After the winner of the MLS Regular Season Tiebreaker advances, any remaining tied clubs not advancing from the first round MLS Regular Season Tiebreaker shall again go through a second round MLS Regular Season Tiebreaker in order to determine the next advancing club. The MLS Regular Season Tiebreaker system will continue until qualification/seeding has been determined.

* Disciplinary Points are calculated as follows:

INFRACTION POINTS
Foul 1 Point
Yellow Card 3 Points
2nd Yellow Card 7 Points
Straight Red Card 7 Points
Coach Dismissal 7 Points
Any Supplemental Discipline 8 Points

When a Player receives a second yellow card, his Club will receive a maximum of seven (7) points total.

**A Player who receives a yellow card, who then receives supplemental discipline for that yellow card, will receive eight (8) points toward the Club’s total Disciplinary Points calculation for this incident.

***A Club can only receive a maximum of eight (8) points for any individual incident.

Note: Disciplinary Points from the MLS is Back Tournament Knockout Stage presented by Audi will not count toward a Club’s total Disciplinary Points.

FORMAT

The format for the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs will consist of 17 single-elimination matches, including MLS Cup. The eight Western Conference teams will qualify directly to Round One. The top six seeds from the 14-team Eastern Conference will qualify directly to Round One.

Play-In Round:

  • Eastern Conference seeds 7-10 will each compete in the Play-In Round (No. 7 vs. No. 10, and No. 8 vs. No. 9) to determine which two Eastern Conference will advance to the Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs Round One.
  • The lower-seeded advancing team will face the Eastern Conference No. 1 seed in Round One, while the higher-seeded advancing team will face the Eastern Conference No. 2 seed.

Round One:

  • Round One will consist of eight single-elimination, intraconference games that will feature eight teams from each the Eastern Conference and Western Conference. Western Conference teams will include seeds 1-8, while Eastern Conference teams will include seeds 1-6, as well as the two advancing teams from the two Eastern Conference Play-In Round.
  • The intraconference matchups will feature the higher-seeded teams against the lower-seeded teams:
    • Western Conference Matchups:
    • No. 1 vs. No. 8
    • No. 2 vs. No. 7
    • No. 3 vs. No. 6
    • No. 4 vs. No 5
    • Eastern Conference Matchups:
    • No. 1 vs. lower advancing play-in seed
    • No. 2 vs. higher advancing play-in seed
    • No. 4 vs. No. 5
    • No. 3 vs. No. 6
  • If the match is tied through 90 minutes of regulation, two 15-minute extra time periods will be played in their entirety. Should the score remain tied after the extra time periods, both teams will take five kicks from the penalty mark (and continuing into sudden death kicks from the penalty mark) until a winner has been determined. There is no longer an away goals tiebreaker.
  • The four winners, two from each conference, advance to the Conference Semifinals.

Conference Semifinals:

  • The Conference Semifinals will consist of four single-elimination games, two games in each conference.
    • Western Conference:
    • Round One winner of No. 1 vs. 8 will face the winner of No. 4 vs. 5
    • Round One winner of No. 3 vs. 6 will play the winner of No. 2 vs. 7
    • Eastern Conference
    • Round One winner of No. 1 vs. the lower advancing play-in seed will face the Round One winner of No. 4 vs. 5.
    • Round One winner of No. 2 vs. the higher advancing play-in seed will face the Round One winner of No. 3 vs. 6.
  • If the match is tied through 90 minutes of regulation, two 15-minute extra time periods will be played in their entirety. Should the score remain tied after the extra time periods, both teams will take five kicks from the penalty mark (and continuing into sudden death kicks from the penalty mark) until a winner has been determined. There is no longer an away goals tiebreaker.
  • The winners advance to the Conference Finals.

Conference Finals:

  • The Conference Finals will consist of two single-elimination games, one game in each conference.
  • If the match is tied through 90 minutes of regulation, two 15-minute extra time periods will be played in their entirety. Should the score remain tied after the extra time periods, both teams will take five kicks from the penalty mark (and continuing into sudden death kicks from the penalty mark) until a winner has been determined. There is no longer an away goals tiebreaker.
  • The winner from each conference, the Conference Champion, advances to MLS Cup.

MLS Cup:

  • MLS Cup will be a single championship match hosted by the finalist with the most MLS Regular Season points.
  • If the score is tied at the conclusion of the match, two 15-minute extra time periods will be played in their entirety, followed by five kicks from the penalty mark (and continuing into sudden death kicks from the penalty mark if still tied at completion of such five kicks), if necessary.

The Audi 2020 MLS Cup Playoffs schedule and broadcast details will be announced at a later date.

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