MLS is Back Tournament format: Your essential guide to the event

The return of MLS is almost here.

For the first time since play was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic on March 12, MLS teams will take to the field in official competition beginning on July 8 for a unique tournament at ESPN Wide World of Sports at Disney World Resort in Florida.

So how will it work and what does it mean for the 2020 season? Here's everything you need to know about the MLS is Back Tournament:

Quick Facts

Key Dates

  • June 24-July 6: Teams arrive in Florida
  • July 8: Group Stage presented by Heineken begins
  • July 25-28: Knockout Stage presented by Audi (Round of 16) begins
  • July 30-Aug. 1: Quarterfinals
  • August 5-6: Semifinals
  • August 11: Final

How will the tournament work?

Similar to a FIFA World Cup, the tournament will feature a continuous schedule of matches nearly every day, with games beginning at 9 am, 8 pm and 10:30 pm EST, with the majority of the matches to be played in the evening.

Group Stage presented by Heineken:

  • The 25 teams will be split into six groups. (NOTE: FC Dallas were withdrawn from the tournament.)
  • Eastern Conference teams are split into three groups (Group A, C, E).
  • The Western Conference teams are also split into three groups (Group B, D, F).
  • Each team will play three group stage matches over the course of 16 consecutive days.
  • Top three teams from Group A and the top two teams from Groups B,C,D,E,F advance. Also the next three highest-ranked teams in the group stage based on points total advance to Round of 16. More details
  • If two or more clubs are tied on points in the group stage, MLS regular season tiebreaking procedures are used.
  • The tiebreakers for determining the three highest-ranked teams are: (1) points, (2) goal differential, (3) goals scored, (4) fewest disciplinary points.

Group Stage Tournament Draw:

  • A draw for the tournament took place on Thursday, June 11 to determine the placing of the 26 teams into six groups.
  • Nashville SC were placed in the Eastern Conference and will remain in the Eastern Conference for the remainder of the 2020 season.
  • As the “host” team, Orlando City SC were the top seed in the six-team group.
  • The four semifinalists from the 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs – Atlanta United, Los Angeles Football Club, Seattle Sounders FC, Toronto FC – joined Orlando as group seeds, along with Real Salt Lake (the next highest points total in the Western Conference from the 2019 season).
  • Full Group Stage Draw details

Knockout Stage presented by Audi:

  • Knockout round matches that finish tied at the end of regulation will proceed directly to a penalty kick shootout.

What's at stake?

  • Regular Season points: Each of the 36 group-stage games will count for points toward the 2020 regular-season standings.
  • Concacaf Champions League spot: In a one-time change to MLS berths to the annual Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League, the MLS is Back Tournament winner will earn a spot in the 2021 Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League, regardless of whether it is a U.S. or Canadian club. This berth replaces the one traditionally awarded to the regular-season conference leader that did not win the Supporters’ Shield.
  • Prize Money: In addition to matches that count in the regular-season standings and competing for bragging rights, the MLS is Back Tournament will give players the opportunity to earn additional bonuses as part of a $1.1 million prize pool.

General competition rules

  • Substitutions: Clubs can make up to 5 substitutions per match per the new protocol set by the IFAB, but each club will have a maximum of three opportunities to make those 5 subs in every match. Subs made at halftime will not count toward one of the three opportunities.
  • Matchday rosters: Teams will also be able to name a matchday roster featuring up to 23 players.
  • Video Review: As is the case during regular MLS play, the Professional Referees Organization (PRO) will have access to Video Review for all games.
  • Delays & postponements: Match delays and postponements will be handled as per the 2020 MLS regular season rules. Any group stage match may be considered final should it reach the 60th minute and it is determined that the match cannot continue.

Disciplinary procedures

  • All discipline received from the first two matches of the 2020 regular season will carry over to the MLS is Back tournament.
  • All group stage discipline will be reset before the start of the knockout stage except for red cards (and second yellows) and other Disciplinary Committee action which will carry over to the knockout stage.
  • There will be no yellow card accumulation policy for the knockout stage.
  • Any group stage discipline that has not been served prior to the end of the group stage will be applied to the next 2020 regular season match following the completion of the tournament (Note: Group stage matches count toward regular season standings).
  • If a player receives a second yellow card in the final group stage match but the first yellow card was also his 5th yellow card of the regular season, the player will be suspended for the first knockout stage competition match (due to red card suspension) AND for his first regular season match following the Tournament (for yellow card accumulation).
  • Red cards (and second yellows) and Disciplinary Committee action in any player’s final knockout stage match will carry over to the regular season. All other knockout stage discipline that has not been fully served prior to the conclusion of the knockout stage will not carry over to the regular season following the tournament.

What happens after the tournament?

  • Upon completion of the MLS is Back Tournament, MLS plans to continue its regular season with a revised schedule in home markets, followed by the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs and the 25th MLS Cup.
  • The schedule will be developed at a later date.
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