Editor’s note: Since this article was published, Liga MX announced that games will be suspended after the current round is completed.
Reactions to the coronavirus pandemic have thrown world football into uncertainty. This week, a host of leagues joined Switzerland and Italy in suspending operations, including Spain, Portugal, Norway, Belgium, Denmark, Scotland and the Netherlands, along with MLS. The Premier League was set to continue until Friday, when it announced that it, too, was shutting down. The same call was made by officials in France and Germany.
Other leagues are opting to play behind closed doors, a strategy Liga MX announced on Saturday it would be implementing. UEFA did that for some games last week, but have postponed all of next week’s Champions League and Europa League games, with the fates of both competitions hanging in the balance.
In South America, continental club competitions Copa Libertadores and Copa Sudamericana have been suspended, while many matches in Brazil are likely — but not required — to be played behind closed doors following health ministry recommendations. Matches in Argentina, Bolivia and Chile will take place without supporters. Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela have suspended their seasons.
Among the players and officials affected, Arsenal announced late on Thursday that manager Mikel Arteta tested positive for the coronavirus. So did Juventus defender Daniele Rugani, on Wednesday, and Chelsea winger Callum Hudson-Odoi on Thursday. A host of clubs around Europe are adopting self-isolation protocols after presumed positive tests at Bournemouth, Leicester City and more.
The truth is that we can only speculate as to what might happen next, but soccer authorities in the U.S., Canada and Mexico are working on scenarios and contingencies.
All of soccer in the U.S. was shut down last week. It began slowly with MLS games in Seattle and San Jose set for March 21 postponed on Wednesday due to coronavirus outbreaks in those communities, which resulted in bans of mass gatherings.
By Thursday, with the state of Ohio (where Columbus Crew SC and FC Cincinnati reside) set to impose its own ban, MLS made the decision to suspend the season for 30 days and asked its players to self-isolate. The USL, whose leagues comprise the second, third, and fourth tiers of American soccer, announced a similar suspension of its season later that day.
Sources told ESPN that MLS has stressed postponement rather than playing games behind closed doors. Unlike European soccer leagues, and even the NHL and NBA closer to home, MLS has just started its season. That allows for considerably more flexibility in rescheduling games later in the year, assuming of course that the shutdown doesn’t last much beyond the initial 30-day window.
Another factor in the emphasis on postponement is that it allows MLS to hang onto critical ticket revenue. Unlike the NBA and the NHL, the prime source of MLS revenues is on matchdays, as opposed to a TV deal. Postponing matches will soften the financial blow, although there is obviously a limit to how long the league can go quiet without making significant alterations to the schedule.
The U.S. Soccer Federation soon followed MLS’s lead, canceling scheduled friendlies for the men’s and women’s national teams — the men were scheduled to play the Netherlands and Wales in Europe while the women were set to host Australia and Brazil — as well as youth national team and Development Academy activity through the end of April. — Jeff Carlisle
While much of the rest of the world was idle, Liga MX continued, albeit amid changing criteria as to who is able to attend games.
On Thursday, league president Enrique Bonilla was adamant it was business as usual — with fans in attendance — in line with advice from Mexico’s health authorities. The next day, a Liga MX statement outlined recommendations and told supporters present to “have fun, be safe.”
The league’s approach led to criticism, with Monterrey player Miguel Layun telling reporters in Guadalajara ahead of Saturday’s game versus Chivas: “It is a matter of safety. It is important to educate people on prevention issues rather than causing panic. The [virus] is a reality, we all see it and I am not an expert, but I think it would be good to have more information to prevent something more serious in our country and hopefully soon measures will be taken.”
Friday saw the first two matches of round 10 of the 2020 Clausura, with Morelia defeating Queretaro 4-0 in front of 17,432 (8,000 fewer than their last home game) and Club Tijuana beating Pachuca 3-2 before 16,333 (Tijuana’s lowest home attendance of the season). A crowd of 22,289 saw Pumas and Cruz Azul tie 0-0 in Liga MX Femenil in Mexico City on Saturday.
But with official coronavirus positive tests in Mexico up to 41 by Saturday night, and some local governments asking for the suspension of mass events, Liga MX announced early Saturday afternoon that, after consulting health authorities, the rest of the weekend’s games would be closed to the public. Media members are allowed to cover games, but those entering Estadio Universitario in Monterrey for Tigres’ home game against FC Juarez on Saturday had their temperatures taken by paramedics.
As for the future, reports on Friday night indicated that, instead of postponing games, the next round of games could be brought forward from next weekend to Wednesday and Thursday. Doing so would leave a two-week gap before the next scheduled games, given the league was set to shut down during the international break anyway. On Saturday, it was reported that the league will be suspended after this weekend.
Meanwhile, the aforementioned international break will not see Mexico in action, after friendlies against Czech Republic (in Charlotte, North Carolina) and Greece (in Arlington, Texas) were cancelled. — Tom Marshall
Also off for at least the next 30 days are all CONCACAF competitions, including men’s Olympic qualifying in Guadalajara, the Champions League, 2021 Gold Cup qualifiers and the Caribbean Club Shield.