SANDY — Real Salt Lake’s late-season push last fall to the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference could pay dividends again in the “MLS is Back Tournament” next month in Orlando.

MLS announced details of the much-anticipated tournament on Wednesday, including that RSL will be one of the six top seeds for the group draw on Thursday afternoon.

The 26 MLS teams will be divided into six groups — three Western Conference and three Eastern Conference. Seattle and Los Angeles FC are No. 1 seeds in the West after reaching the semifinals a year ago, and RSL nabbed the third top seed by virtue of its third-place finish.

“There’s always groups of death. We’ll be ready for everybody. We hope it’s a group that favorable for us.” — RSL coach Freddy Juarez

The other three teams in RSL’s group will be revealed in a draw on Thursday at 1:30 p.m.

“There’s always groups of death. We’ll be ready for everybody. We hope it’s a group that favorable for us,” said RSL coach Freddy Juarez.

Teams will begin reporting to Orlando for training on June 24, and will be permitted to scrimmage once or twice against other MLS teams before the tournament officially kicks off on July 8. MLS teams are expected to be given the green light to resume full training in their home markets this Friday.

The tournament’s group stage runs July 8-24, with all matches scheduled to be broadcast “across MLS partner networks,” and no matches will overlap.

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The top two finishers in all six groups advance to the knockout stage round of 16, along with the four top third-place finishers. The tournament stage runs July 25 to Aug. 11.

Afterward, MLS said it expects to resume the regular season in home markets, but no specific details have been released at this time.

When news of the potential Orlando tournament first start to come out last month, one of the biggest concerns expressed by Real Salt Lake’s players was the length of time in isolation and lack of incentive. MLS addressed those matter by announcing that the MLS is Back Tournament winner will qualify for the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League, in addition to $1.1 million in prize pool money.

Success in the CCL back in 2011 thrust Real Salt Lake onto the CONCACAF map as it advanced to the final. Juarez said that success is part of RSL’s history, and something he really wants to achieve again.

“International play makes us all better, coaches, staff, teams, the team, the league, so for us it’s important,” said Juarez.

Winning the U.S. Open Cup is typically regarded as the “easiest” path to qualifying for the CCL each year as a team only needs to win five matches to earn that CCL automatic berth. The MLS is Back Tournament presents another quick path to a CCL berth, which is realistically much more attainable for smaller market teams than trying to secure the automatic berths associated with winning the Supporters’ Shield or MLS Cup.

RSL keeper Zach MacMath revealed last week after MLS and the MLS Players Union announced a new collective bargaining agreement that not all RSL players were in favor of the Orlando tournament. After all, players will likely be away from their families for up to 45 days, living in a hotel in the MLS bubble Orlando.

In a Zoom press conference with reporters Wednesday, Juarez said he expects all RSL players to participate in the tournament. That includes Damir Kreilach, whose wife is due with their second child about the same time the tournament is scheduled to start in Orlando.

Depending on the date of RSL’s first game, Kreilach may still end up missing a game.

MLS teams will be allotted five substitutions during the tournament, of particular importance in the Florida summer humidity as players are still trying to get into 90-minute game shape. MLS kicked off its regular season in early March, but teams only played two games before the season was suspended because of COVID-19.

“I spoke to the players the other day, and said ‘guys, this isn’t going to be perfect. We can’t go into Orlando expecting everything to go perfect, meals, hotel, duration, competition, times, training field. It’s not going to be perfect. And if we can grasp that concept now, then we can go in there and just focusing on our competition,’” said Juarez.

The league announced that all group games will count toward the regular season standings, with RSL in search of some wins after tying Orlando and New York Red Bulls in its first two games.

All clubs will arrive in Orlando at least seven days before their first match (they can start arriving June 24), and each person in a club’s traveling party must have two negative coronavirus tests 24 hours apart before leaving. If anyone tests positive, they will not travel to Orlando. Players will also undergo an antibody test.

Upon arrival, each person will be tested again for the coronavirus, and players cannot start training until a negative result comes back. All players and other team personnel at the tournament will be tested every other day for the first two weeks. If an individual tests positive at any point, he or she will be isolated in a designated area.

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After the first 14 days, players, coaches and referee staff will be tested regularly, including the day before each matchday. Individuals not part of teams’ traveling parties who will be working at the tournament will have their temperature taken daily and have a standardized screening questionnaire.

A “positive” response to the questionnaire or a temperature above 100.3 degrees must be reported and that person will be isolated and tested for the coronavirus.

During games, players, coaches and officials on the bench or technical area will be required to wear masks and “practice social distancing to the extent possible.” Players will be asked to not exchange jerseys or kiss the ball, and masks or face shields “should be used” during press conferences or flash interviews.

The NBA’s tournament at the same complex in Orlando is slated to start July 31.

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