Nashville becomes 2nd team to withdraw from MLS tournament because of positive COVID-19 tests
9 more players affected as league stumbles in restart; format, schedule updated
The MLS is Back Tournament is down to 24 teams with a "devastated" Nashville SC the latest club forced out by COVID-19.
FC Dallas was forced to withdraw from the World Cup-style tournament in Florida on Monday in the wake of positive tests for 10 players and a coach.
Nashville said one of its players had tested positive upon arrival July 1 at Major League Soccer's host hotel in the Orlando area. Another eight followed suit within a few days.
"Due to the number of positive tests, the club has been unable to train since arriving in Orlando and would not be able to play matches," MLS commissioner Don Garber said in a statement Thursday.
It's been a tough entry into MLS for the expansion side, which lost its first two matches before being forced into lockdown by the global pandemic. It had to deal with political and legal infighting over a proposed new stadium as well as a devastating storm that saw tornadoes cut a deadly swath through middle Tennessee in early March.
And now it has to watch the league's return to action from quarantine.
"We've been smashed in the face three or four times with other issues," Nashville CEO Ian Ayre told a virtual conference call. "But the strength of the organization is climbing over these hurdles and keeping going.
"I have to say that when [owner] John [Ingram] and I addressed all of our players and staff [Thursday morning], whilst everybody took a real punch in the gut with that announcement, I think coming off that call we all believed that we're still one big unit, we're still all together and we'll keep moving forward. I absolutely believe that.
"That doesn't make it easier and that doesn't make it OK. And it doesn't mean I have to like it. But it means that we've been fortunate to assemble a great group of players and staff here. We'll come back."
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Nashville had been scheduled to play Chicago in one of the tournament's two opening matches Wednesday at ESPN's Wide World of Sports complex. That game was postponed on Tuesday.
Ayre said players and staff were "devastated" to learn they had been withdrawn from the tournament. Those virus-free had volunteered to keep going despite the depleted squad.
"The players were 100 per cent committed, right to the end."
Most of the players who had tested positive were asymptomatic, said Ayre. A couple had shown minor symptoms but were doing OK.
Ayre took umbrage at suggestions that his players had misbehaved.
"None of this stuff is with foundation at all. There's no substance," he said.
MLS, which halted play March 12 two weeks into the season due to the pandemic, was forced to rejig the tournament groups in the absence of the two teams.
Chicago moves from Group A to Group B, replacing Dallas and joining the Vancouver Whitecaps, San Jose Earthquakes and Seattle Sounders. Group A, which had started with six teams, is now down to four with the departure of Nashville and Chicago's shift.
Format still intact
With the tournament reduced to 24 teams, there are six groups of four teams. The top two from each group along with the four best third-place finishers will move on to the knockout round-of-16 stage that begins July 25.
The Whitecaps will now play San Jose on July 15 (10:30 p.m. ET), Seattle on July 19 (10:30 p.m.) and Chicago on July 23 (9 a.m.)
One of the questions left to be answered is how Dallas and Nashville will make up their three group games, which are counting in the regular season standings.
On Wednesday, MLS said it had recorded four more positive COVID-19 tests over the last two days.
The league says the four tests came from two different clubs. There were 1,888 players, coaches, referees, club staff, league staff and other individuals tested on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The league announced the test findings in a social media post late Wednesday. It did not identify the two clubs with positive tests.
The competition kicked off Wednesday night with Orlando City defeating expansion Inter Miami CF 2-1.
The Montreal Impact faced the New England Revolution on Thursday evening.