Soccer

Premier League returns: Games resume on Wednesday

Premier League returns: Games resume on Wednesday

MANCHESTER, England (AP) -- English soccer's longest suspension since World War II comes to an end Wednesday, bringing the country's favorite sport back to a nation that has struggled to protect its citizens during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Premier League, the richest soccer league in the world with massive worldwide viewership, was suspended on March 13 after Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta tested positive. The virus had been rapidly spreading from Italy and Spain to the rest of Europe but it took soccer authorities to halt play, a move that has been credited with saving lives by keeping tens of thousands of fans in England from being infected at stadiums as they raucously supported their teams.

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Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative government has faced widespread criticism for not ordering a nationwide lockdown until March 23 and not supplying health care workers with enough protective equipment. Johnson himself fell seriously ill with the virus.

Health experts say if the government had just shut down the country one week earlier, Britain could have cut its virus-related death toll of over 42,000 in half. The death toll is the highest in Europe.

"I thought about the night I started to have some symptoms, how serious that was," Arteta said in a pre-match virtual news conference. "It had to be reported because I could put at risk a lot of people."

Britain has eased its lockdown despite still seeing more than 1,000 new coronavirus cases and hundreds of deaths each week. So after months of planning, the Premier League is getting back on the field -- even though they will be playing in empty stadiums, just like Germany's Bundesliga, which returned last month.

The first Premier League match in more than three months will be between Birmingham club Aston Villa and Sheffield United on Wednesday, followed by second-place Manchester City taking on London club Arsenal.

League leader Liverpool, which holds a massive 25-point lead over Man City and is close to winning its first league title in 30 years, will play its first match Sunday at city rival Everton.

"Obviously it is going to be an odd experience without fans," said Premier League chief executive Richard Masters. "The Premier League won't be back with a capital `B' until fans are back."

The opening round of matches will honor the Black Lives Matter movement, which spread to Britain and the rest of the world following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis by police last month. Players on each team will have their names removed from the back of their shirts and replaced with "Black Lives Matter." They will also wear a Black Lives Matter logo and a badge thanking Britain's National Health Service for the rest of season.

The latest example of the league's clout came this weekend when 22-year-old star Marcus Rashford publicly demanded that Johnson's government reverse its decision to halt school lunch vouchers for poor students over the summer holidays. The Manchester United and England player cited his own childhood experience of relying on free school lunches and food banks.

His campaign to protect hungry children drew wide support, prompting Johnson to make an abrupt policy U-turn Monday and continue the vouchers. Johnson then called Rashford to thank him.

After the announcement Rashford tweeted: "I don't even know what to say. Just look at what we can do when we come together, THIS is England in 2020."

During the lockdown and with the resumption of the season in doubt, the league had feared it could lose more than $1 billion for failing to meet broadcasting commitments.

Of the five biggest soccer nations in Europe, England will be the fourth to get back on the field. Germany was first last month, while Spain and Italy resumed this month. France canceled the remainder of its season while the virus was still peaking -- as did England's neighbor, Scotland.

When teams were finally allowed to return to training, social distancing measures and testing for COVID-19 were put into place. Soccer authorities have now agreed to allow five substitutions in each match, rather than three, to cut down on injuries.

For now, only 110 people -- including players, referees and coaches -- will be allowed in the red zone around the field of play, and will be required to have a negative COVID-19 test in the previous five days as part of a medical passport that will see a barcode scanned before they can enter.

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Although fans won't be allowed in the stadiums, many games will be available to watch on free TV -- partly to keep fans from gathering by the thousands outside stadiums.

"We've negotiated 1/3 matches on free to view TV & all to be covered on broadcast for you," British Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden tweeted Wednesday. "Please? support from home & keep the restart safe."

The Premier League plans to finish the remaining 92 games of its season by July 26. There are also contingency plans for what to do if a second wave of infections that causes another shutdown but not about how to resolve an incomplete season.

The second division in England will also resume this weekend, while the third and fourth divisions will play only playoffs. The women's league and the lower men's leagues were all canceled.

Once all the national leagues are done, the country's beloved FA Cup final will be held on Aug. 1. The Champions League is expected to finish its season in an abbreviated tournament-style finish in Lisbon in mid-August.

D.C. United to return to Audi Field as MLS will host local matches beginning August 12

D.C. United to return to Audi Field as MLS will host local matches beginning August 12

Following the conclusion of the MLS is Back Tournament, MLS will continue its 25th season by having teams compete in their local markets, the league announced on Saturday.

Thus, D.C. United will be returning to Audi Field for regular-season action. The team will open up on the road against FC Cincinnati on Friday, August 21, before having its home opener on Tuesday, August 25, against the New England Revolution. For at least the beginning of the season, no fans will be in attendance. 

“I would like to thank everyone involved with the MLS is Back Tournament -- players, coaches, staff and partners -- for their role in helping us recapture the momentum we had at the beginning of our 25th season and reconnect with our passionate fans,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said in a statement. “Since suspending play in March, we have been working on plans to play as much of our season as possible, beginning with the tournament in Florida and resuming in our local markets following the competition. We remain focused on the health and safety of our players, coaches and staff, and look forward to continuing our season in our home markets.”

Though the league is planning to allow teams to travel after holding the tournament in a bubble, it doesn't mean protocols will lessen in the midst of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Players will continue to be tested every other day and are strongly advised to limit exposure outside of team facilities and mandated areas.

However, a major complication is how the three Canadian teams (Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver) will handle the season. Much like how the Toronto Blue Jays had to relocate to Buffalo to play the MLB season, Canada still has tight restrictions in place when it comes to leaving the country and coming back.

MLS states that it will have a clearer picture of the schedule in September, but initially plans to have U.S. teams only square off against one another. That may lead to the three teams north of the border only playing one another for the beginning of the season. PLans there remain uncertain. 

As it stands now, the league is set to kick off on August 12 and each team will play 18 games. Decision Day will be on November 8, and 18 teams will enter the playoffs. That number is four more than last season. The MLS Cup will take place on December 12. 

The MLS is Back Tournament is set to come to a conclusion on August 11 and the Portland Timbers will take on Orlando City for the title on August 11. D.C. United did not reach the knockout stage after finishing last in their group.

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Christian Pulisic continues to shine for Chelsea early in FA Cup Final, leaves match with injury

Christian Pulisic continues to shine for Chelsea early in FA Cup Final, leaves match with injury

Since the resumption of soccer in England, USNMT star and Chelsea attacker Christian Pulisic has been among the best in the sport. He continued that on Saturday, wasting no time giving his team the lead in the FA Cup Final against Arsenal.

Pulisic netted a goal just five minutes into the match.

The FA Cup is a knockout-style tournament that pits the best British soccer teams against one another. Pulisic's goal not only gave Chelsea an early advantage, but put him in the history books as he became the first U.S International player to score in the final.

Pulisic's brilliance on Saturday is just the latest impressive performance by the 21-year old. His effort since the Premier League returned helped Chelsea finish in the top four of the league.

Unfortunately for Pulisic and Chelsea, he did not get the opportunity to further leave his mark on the FA Cup Final and he exited in the 48th minute with what appeared to be a hamstring injury.

Though he had to leave the contest early, Pulisic once again proved that he is an emerging star both nationally and internationally.

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