Real Salt Lake is back.
Major League Soccer announced the first phase of its return to play in home markets since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the 2020 season in March. The league will return in two phases that total 18 games for each team and end on Nov. 8.
RSL’s first home game is Aug. 26 against LAFC, but the team restarts its season Aug. 22 on the road against the Colorado Rapids.
Rio Tinto Stadium is expected to allow roughly 5,000 fans to attend games, and RSL defender Justen Glad said he is looking forward to playing in front of a home crowd again.
“There is, for me, a little added extra incentive,” Glad said, adding that he hopes spectators follow social distancing guidelines while at the stadium. “It invigorates everyone I think.”
Salt Lake’s other games are Aug. 29 at the Portland Timbers, Sept. 2 at home against the Seattle Sounders, Sept. 5 at Minnesota United and Sept. 12 at home against Colorado.
“Tough opponents,” RSL coach Freddy Juarez said. “It’s going to be exciting. You want to play against the best.”
Phase One of the MLS’s restart plan involves teams in the United States playing six games against only other U.S. teams. That phase will last until Sept. 14 at which point the league expects restrictions prohibiting travel between the U.S. and Canada to be lifted.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber on Saturday fielded questions mostly surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and why the league felt it acceptable to not only return to home markets but also allow spectators to attend games.
“We understand that getting back to play is going to have some challenges,” Garber said. “We’re aware of those challenges. We’re prepared for it. We are understanding that it’s not going to be easy.”
Garber said he knows the possibility exists that an outbreak could cause the postponement of games and stressed the need for the league to be flexible. He added that the experience with the bubble environment in Orlando taught the league a lot.
“I’m confident that we have a good plan,” Garber said. “I’m confident in our players adhering to that plan. And if it doesn’t work well, then we’ll address it at that time.”
Garber said there is no specific threshold of positive coronavirus cases that would postpone a game or cause another shutdown to the season. But he did say if “one or two” players test positive, the league believes that situation is manageable.
It has been several weeks since the league has reported a positive coronavirus test.
Garber also said teams will travel on chartered planes and, in some cases, buses in order to minimize extended road trips. Glad and RSL goalkeeper Zac MacMath said that detail allows them to feel comfortable about traveling to other locations.
Juarez expressed confidence in how the league managed the situation in Orlando and how much thought was put into resuming the season in home markets. But he also understands it won’t be perfect.
“Is it COVID free, 100%? No, I don’t think so,” Juarez said. “But that’s a little bit of the risk that we have to take for the better of everything else as well.”
REAL SALT LAKE PHASE ONE SCHEDULE
Aug. 22 at Colorado Rapids, 7 p.m.
Aug. 26 vs. LAFC, 7:30 p.m.
Aug. 29 at Portland Timbers, 8:30 p.m.
Sept. 2 vs. Seattle Sounders, 7:30 p.m.
Sept. 5 at Minnesota United, 6 p.m.
Sept. 12 vs. Colorado Rapids, 7:30 p.m.