MLS is making contingency plans for the MLS Cup final that include the possibility of holding the game at a neutral site due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, sources have told ESPN.
The MLS Cup playoffs have reached the semifinal stage, with the Columbus Crew hosting the New England Revolution in Sunday's Eastern Conference final, while Minnesota United will travel to Seattle to face the Sounders the following day in the Western Conference final. The MLS Cup final will be played on Dec. 12.
With MLS using points per game during the regular season to determine playoff seeding, the Crew have the inside track on hosting the MLS Cup final as things stand, followed by Seattle, Minnesota and New England.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage across the U.S., with new cases topping 200,000 the past two days and deaths approaching 3,000 per day, according to the New York Times. MLS has been preparing since before the start of the playoffs for the possibility that COVID-19-related restrictions -- such as those currently in place in parts of California -- might prevent a team from hosting a playoff game.
One source stressed that such plans constituted a "backup to the backup" and that MLS still intends to play the final at the venue of the higher-seeded team. It's unclear, however, if the league would try to hold the game in the lower-seeded team's home venue if the higher-seeded finalist couldn't host, or if it would proceed directly to a neutral venue.
If the MLS Cup final is moved to a neutral site, Orlando's Exploria Stadium has been mentioned as a possible option due to the natural grass field and favorable weather conditions in the December months.
MLS couldn't be reached for comment during the reporting of this story.
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Last month, Ohio governor Mike DeWine reimposed a mandate for the wearing of masks outdoors as well as inside businesses when staying six feet away from people isn't possible. A stay-at-home order between the hours of 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., with some exceptions is also in effect. Franklin County, where Columbus sits, reported a seven-day moving average of 840 new cases, which translates to 64 cases per 100,000 residents. The Crew are currently allowing up to 1,500 ticketed supporters to attend matches, in addition to friends and family.
Two weeks ago, Minnesota governor Tim Walz announced a four-week shutdown of bars, restaurants, entertainment venues and fitness clubs to slow the COVID-19 pandemic. In Ramsey County, home to Minnesota's Allianz Field, the seven-day moving average is 508 cases, which translates to 92.3 per 100,000 residents. Minnesota United currently isn't allowing fans to attend matches.
In Norfolk County, home of the Revolution's home venue of Gillette Stadium, the seven-day moving average was 240, which translates to 34 per 100,000 residents. A Revs spokesperson said that the team is still not permitting fans to attend matches. Massachusetts currently requires people to wear masks in public places. Indoor gatherings are limited to 10 people while outdoor meetings are limited to 25 people. A stay-at-home order similar to that of Ohio is also in effect.
In the state of Washington, a four-week health order that limits outdoor gatherings to five people from outside the same household and prevents indoor dining at bars and restaurants, among other restrictions, will remain in effect until Dec. 14. As has been the case since the start of the pandemic, fans are not allowed at Sounders home games. The reported seven-day moving average in King County is 581.4 new cases, which is roughly 25.8 per 100,000 residents.