RSL players - kneeling during practice - solidarity
Courtesy of Real Salt Lake

What MLS is Back means in our changed world | Andrew Wiebe

Major League Soccer is coming back. I’ve waited almost three months to write those words. We’ve all waited that long to find out how and when our game, our clubs, our league will emerge from a global pandemic that’s thrown our lives into varying degrees of disarray.

Now we know. It’s called the MLS is Back Tournament. All the details are here.

To be honest, the prospect of soccer, our soccer, doesn’t feel as good as I thought it might. There are hugely important things to worry about, to devote our time and energy to in the coming months and years. We always knew that, of course, but the past three months have been instructive. Shocking, I know, coming from someone who as recently as mid-May spilled 2,000-plus words on rivalry villains and put together an all-time MLS Best XI for every continent.

I want to celebrate, to yell incoherently, fist pump and run around for no reason. I really do. I want to write the “Rah-rah MLS is back!!!” column that you probably expected from me. It doesn’t feel, well, like I feel. Not with people in the streets fighting for racial justice and the change our society so desperately needs. Not with people still dying every day from COVID-19.

I’m not there yet. Give me a month. I’ll woo, eventually, I'm sure.

Not because it’s good for business. (It is.) Not because I’m bored without MLS to fill my days and weekends. (I am.) Not because we’re still building this game in the United States and Canada and every moment matters. (They do.) Not because I can’t imagine watching another throwback game or having an all-time anything conversation for at least a year. (I’m sure I will.)

I’ll get there because soccer is my outlet, a source of joy since I was a 4-year-old kicking a foam ball around a gym at the YMCA. I’ll get there because what I love most about this game is the players. Soccer is their profession, but it’s also their mode of self-expression. It’s their art. It is their moment to stand on center stage, to bare their soul and speak their mind with their touches, their movement, their celebrations and every moment in between. This is their time.

As fans, we like to say the game wouldn’t be the same without us, and that’s true. We’ll find out soon enough exactly how and with what innovative technologies MLS plans to fill the spectator gap in Orlando. Meanwhile, we all know the game is nothing without the men and women who play it. Their passion has been on hiatus. Their coping mechanism out of reach, indefinitely.

When the cameras come on and the microphones pick up sound, nothing will matter but 22 players, six referees (don’t forget the VAR and AVAR!) and a ball. I can’t wait to see what the diverse, intelligent, humane people who play in MLS do with this opportunity, as competitors and as people. I don’t expect they’ll waste their chance to speak to the world with their actions, their words and, most likely, their undershirts.

Our players have something to say. That's not new. Now, we're just paying attention, giving them the platform they always deserved. We’d better be ready to keep listening. We’d best be ready to be inspired.

This game we love is beautiful. Now, as much as ever, we need beauty in our lives: a cat-and-mouse interception that starts the counterattack, a miraculous save that elicits a knowing smile from the near goalscorer, an unconventional but effective clearance, a diagonal ball that goes laces to laces, a turn that leaves markers rooted to the spot in no-man’s land, a hit so pure that you know it’s in the back of the net the moment the ball is struck.

Imagine how those moments make you feel. Imagine feeling that again, three times a day. We need those two-hour respites from a world that rightfully demands more of us than it did yesterday and the day before that. I know I need them. Maybe that strikes you as selfish. It strikes me as necessary. We all need a break. We all recharge in different ways. It’s OK to take that time before getting back to the task at hand, whether that be changing the world via protest, providing for yourself and your family or just getting by one day at a time.

I can admit, too, that I really dig the World Cup-style format. I’m intrigued. Before COVID hit, this group stage-to-Round of 16 setup would have been a thought experiment, something we dreamed up on Extratime in response to a “what if” email in the mailbag. Now it’s real, and we get to see in real-time how teams, coaches and players adapt to a challenge they’ve never tackled before at the club level in circumstances that will test even the most mentally and physically capable.

Everyone will approach it differently, but every game will matter. These are professionals, after all. Money is on the line, big money, seven-figure money. So is pride, points in the regular-season table and a treasured berth in next year's Concacaf Champions League. The first matchday will tell us a lot. How will the new substitution rule work in practice? Which tactics will fare best? Will young legs or old heads prevail? Will the things we thought we knew about 2020 in February apply in July and August?

I don’t have the answers to those questions. Nobody does. Not for another month, anyway.

So be safe and set an alarm for 8:30 am ET on July 8 now, like this very second. I’m recommending a half-hour pad to wipe the sleep from your eyes, brew some coffee and scramble an egg or two. I know I’ll need that caffeine pick-me-up out here on the West Coast. Maybe adrenaline and anticipation will get you through that first game in Orlando. Maybe you don’t live with a toddler.

And maybe you’re not quite feeling it yet. I get it. I’m still getting there, too. That’s OK. Give it time. The world stopped, and we all changed. The world stood up to injustice, and we were all called to action.

Take a month to ease into it. I expect we’ll get there together, one beautiful moment at a time.

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