Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber speaks during the Major League Soccer 25th Season kickoff event in New York on February 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Richard Drew

Major League Soccer still mum on where Canadian teams will play in 2021

MLS commissioner Don Garber was short on optimism and answers Wednesday when asked whether the three Canadian teams might start the season in their home markets.

“You know what is going on in Canada is very challenging,” he told reporters. “We continue to work with our teams to engage with the Canadian authorities … We are going to abide by whatever the rules are that are established by Health Canada.

”As you can imagine, all three of our teams are working on alternative plans as to where they are going to be, certainly in the short-term, playing their games because it doesn’t look like we’ll have immediate exposure to this in the near-term.”

Toronto FC, the Vancouver Whitecaps and CF Montreal, previously known as the Montreal Impact, all had to move south of the border to finish out the 2020 campaign because of pandemic-related travel restrictions.

But Garber suggested a resolution is coming.

“Hang in there, we’re really close to being able to announce where our Canadian clubs will be able to play,” he said.

The answer was in response to a question of whether Yankee Stadium might be a suitable home away from home for a Canadian team given word from New York state that large sports venues — those with capacity of 10,000 or more — can reopen at 10 per cent capacity.

“Yankee Stadium isn’t one of the locations that we’ve been considering (for Canadian teams),” Garber added. “I am encouraged by Gov. Cuomo’s announcement and his optimism … The more optimism and the more positive news that come out of state houses for our league and for the rest of the sports industry is something that we’re all anxiously waiting for.”

Also Wednesday, the league announced the 2021 season will kick off April 17, as opposed to the earlier announced April 3, although the full schedule has yet to come out. Last year, the season started Feb. 29 only to shut down two weeks into the campaign due to COVID-19.

Garber said the league will probably get more involved in the discussion between the Canadian teams and the relevant authorities.

“But as far as optimism is concerned (about Canadian teams playing at home), it’s hard for me to really comment on that,” he added.

He said there has been no decision on whether the Canadian teams will play among themselves, as they did for a stretch when the league returned after the MLS is Back Tournament last summer. The NHL has gone that route with an all-Canadian division this season.

“Right now our focus is trying to get an understanding as to when our teams can play in their home markets,” he said. “And in the event that they’re not able to, as our season start is in front of us, having them have homes in the United States where they’ll be able to do sort of what like they did at the end of last year, be able to play their home matches (south of the border).

“So nothing to report there but as you can imagine it’s something we’re working on and trying to understand every day.”

Garber confirmed that the Canadian teams have got some assistance from the league on costs associated with having to move their home base.

“The league does provide financial support to our Canadian clubs. How much is something that I’ll leave between us and our teams,” he said.

Last season, Vancouver eventually shifted its base of operations to Portland while Montreal moved to Harrison, N.J., and Toronto landed in East Hartford, Conn.

Garber also gave a thumbs-up to Montreal’s rebrand, saying “the people who like it are much quieter than the people who don’t and I think that’s just the nature of rebranding overall.”

“It takes time for people to come to terms with and get comfortable with a rebranding. And we certainly have seen that in Major League Soccer. I’ve got a lot of faith in (Montreal owner) Joey Saputo, I’ve got a lot of faith in (president) Kevin Gilmore. They went about this for the right reasons.”

“I like the rebrand. Our people were involved with Kevin on the creative (process) and I think in time people are going to really love it,” he added.

On a broader topic, Garber said the league expects to lose close to US$1 billion this year — as he said it did last season.

“When you don’t have fans for the majority of your season, it’s just pure math,” he said. “That being said, our owners have been very very focused over a long period of time to build the league. But their resources are not unlimited. We’ve got to drive revenue. We’ve got to think about new ways to approach our business.”

A new collective bargaining agreement has helped, he acknowledged.

Asked abut player vaccination against COVID-19, Garber said the league has not made any decision about requiring players to have them.

“I will say I can’t imagine a world where we would,” said Garber, adding the vaccine should go to those who need it the most.

“I will say I’m encouraged that more and more vaccines are available,” he said.

On other matters, Garber said teams will continue to travel via charter during the pandemic. And the league policy on national anthems remains — they will played when fans are in the stadium but not if they aren’t.

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