By Ben Wright.
ORLANDO, FL - MLS is officially back. Orlando City's Nani scored a stoppage time winner to give the "hosts" a 2-1 victory over Inter Miami CF.
The opening moments of the match were the most powerful. Both teams took a knee around the center circle as players from the rest of the league filed onto the field to silently stand together for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, the length of time officer Derrick Chauvin knelt on George Floyd's neck in Minneapolis on May 25.
It was a powerful moment of protest, solidarity, and taking a stand, organized by the Black Players Coalition for Change. "We were very adamant that this message and this protest came from us and it was authentic," Justin Morrow, the coalition's executive director, told The Tennessean's Drake Hills. "We've seen time and time again, the cycle of violence that happens in North America, where someone is killed – a Black man, or a Black woman is killed – and something else happens and people forget. It's our responsibility to carry this message and make sure that (forgetting) does not happen again." (Hills' full interview can be found here - it's well worth the read).
On the field, the opening exchanges were about what you'd expect from two teams who haven't played a match in four months. The ideas were there, but the execution was often lacking. It took a while to get used to the compact camera angle, and despite the giant blue screen plastered with ads on the far side of the field, the lack of crowd noise was an stark contrast to the artificial noise pumped into recent Premier League and Bundesliga broadcasts. Still, ESPN's decision to instead emphasize field microphones gave a different level of access into the communication on the field and from the sidelines.
The rust wore off in the second half. Nani pulled the strings for Orlando, and Miami looked much improved once Rodolfo Pizzaro was introduced. By the time Nani found the winner deep into added time, the match almost felt like a regular, summer MLS match. With the exception of a frightening neck injury to Miami's Andrés Reyes, which required over eight minutes of on-field treatment before he was carried off on a stretcher, the match was a welcome return for the league. Did it have strong U-16 regional tournament vibes at times? Sure. But as the rust wears off and players get back into form, the quality will improve.
Of note to Nashville fans were commissioner Don Garber's halftime remarks. When asked about the status of Nashville SC and the nine players who have tested positive for the coronavirus, Garber didn't definitively announce that Nashville would be withdrawn, but didn't sound overly optimistic, either.
"We are working very closely with our ID doctors, we're going to meet with them after tonight's game," Garber said. "If we find that we have a situation with Nashville where they can't continue with the tournament then we'll make that decision overnight."
Dallas was withdrawn from the tournament after 10 players and a member of the coaching staff tested positive. Nashville has nine confirmed cases. It's hard to see a scenario where Dallas was withdrawn but Nashville is allowed to continue, and it seems like that decision will be made shortly. We'll continue to update this story as news breaks.
Overall, MLS's return to the pitch was a welcome one. In a year that's been full of chaos and bad news, having MLS on our TV screens once again is a welcome return to normalcy.