Despite the pandemic’s spike in Florida, the defending champion Sounders will join the rest of MLS in Orlando for a seven-week tournament. Test kits, everyone?
Road trip! Five to seven weeks in a Florida resort town, away from the fam, paid to hang with the guys!
After three months in quarantine, it sounds close to ideal.
Unless, of course, someone ends up seriously ill, or dead. But Major League Soccer and its defending champion Seattle Sounders are willing to risk it.
The league announced Wednesday its plans to go to a sports bubble in Orlando and ride out the pandemic storm with something called the MLS Is Back Tournament.
Starting July 8 after a training camp, all 26 teams will compete, absent families and fans, in a semi-sterile environment — the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at the Walt Disney World Resort — with a World Cup-style format that will produce, coronavirus willing, a champion by Aug. 11.
After that, MLS will peer from its bubble and then, if safe, resume a regular season at home stadiums.
Will the bubble be safe?
“I can answer that, as a human being and as a person,” said Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer via conference call with Seattle reporters. “I feel safe going down there.”
Of course, had he said the opposite, he would be the lead story on the world’s cable-TV news networks.
As it was, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the well-regarded infectious disease expert on the White House Coronavirus Task Force, commanded media attention Tuesday when, speaking to a biotech conference, he sounded more glum than usual.
“Oh my goodness,” Dr. Fauci said, according to the New York Times. “Where is it going to end? We’re still at the beginning of really understanding.”
Florida, one of the earliest states to begin to re-open, is seeing a sharp uptick in confirmed cases.
Nevertheless, MLS became the earliest men’s league to nail down its re-start after the mid-March shutdown of all sports as the virus marched across the globe. The National Women’s Soccer League, including the OL Reign of Tacoma, have a bubble training camp underway in Missoula, MT.
The giant Florida sports complex will dedicate a hotel to house all MLS teams, even as it plans to host 22 NBA teams for its postseason starting in mid-July.
Each team will have its own floor, one player per room. All are required to observe the standard health-safety protocols and be tested frequently, per the amended collective bargaining agreement with the players union. A player testing positive will be isolated in quarantine and his contacts traced. The expectation is that games will not be postponed for isolated cases.
But the bubble will not be entirely closed. The cooks, cleaning crews and transportation workers at the hotel and resort will not be quarantined. In a separate conference, MLS Commissioner Don Garber said that the league is comfortable with that.
“I think the key point there is that the staff will not be coming into close contact with our players, and if they were, we would manage it through a different protocol,” he said. “So we’re all going to be living in a world where we’re not going to be able to test every person that comes in contact with each other, or comes in contact with us as we go on with our lives . . . This is a protocol that we’re confident about and we will manage it with real discipline.”
General manager Garth Lagerwey, on the conference with Schmetzer, was similarly assured.
“MLS has its own team of medical experts that have been engaged, and Disney has a team that’s been engaged,” he said. “I think it’s important to establish that there is no such thing as zero risk. There’s not zero risk in Washington right now. We don’t have zero cases.
‘The other factor is the players have had their own experts engage in this process and they have agreed to this. Ultimately, they have to go down there and perform and have to be comfortable with it.”
That would include Sounders star Jordan Morris, whose underlying condition, diabetes, puts him at higher risk. But according to Lagerwey, Morris, who like all players could have opted out for health reasons, didn’t flinch.
“Higher-risk people do not have to go; it’s their decision,” said Lagerwey, who offered that Morris’s father, Michael, is the team’s medical director. “I recall a conversation I had with Dr. Morris early in the pandemic. He said Jordan’s gonna play. This is nothing to be for him to be afraid of.”
Another problem with bubble ball is boredom. As Schmetzer put it, “I mean, they’re not going down to Daytona Beach and Miami Beach or anything like that.” He talked about setting up game rooms with ping-pong and foosball, maybe a team barbecue to “keep them from getting a little stir crazy.”
A live draw at 12:30 p.m. Thursday will set the field. Teams can travel to Orlando as soon as June 24. The tournament will consist of a group stage with each team playing three matches, all of which will count in the regular season, followed by a knockout stage, which won’t count in the regular season.
The teams will be in six groups. The top two teams in each group, plus the four best third-place finishers, qualify for the round of 16.
For the remainder of the 2020 season, Nashville will be moved to the Eastern Conference, which will have three groups, one of six teams and two of four each. The Western Conference will have three groups of four teams.
After a rancorous negotiation between the league and union over terms and conditions that for a time seemed to put the re-start in peril, MLS is thrilled to have made it this far.
No one bought up Wednesday any questions about the soccer world after the tourney title match Aug. 11. That’s probably because in today’s hyper news pace, it seems a century from now. Just as the fact that the Sounders already have played two regular-season games seems a century ago.
And a potential seven-week road trip seems forever, yet not enough. As Schmetzer put it, “It’s almost like we’ve forgotten that in November we won a championship.”