BY Art Thiel 09:06PM 06/10/2020

Thiel: MLS, Sounders gird for Florida’s ‘bubble’

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?

Commissioner Don Garber awards the Sounders their second MLS Cup in December 2019 at the Clink. / Joe Towner, Sportspress Northwest

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.”



  • jafabian

    “This is nothing to be afraid of.” I’ve heard and read that statement a lot during the pandemic and it offends me. It shows ignorance about what is happening today. Jordan and everyone has everything to be afraid of. We all have but one life. ONE. If someone is diagnosed with COVID19 during this MLS tournament do you tell tell them “Ooooops”?

    COVID19 is on the fast track of HIV/AIDS which has no cure but can be managed in some cases. But it can still kill. Some are mistakenly believing a vaccine is on the horizon however typically it takes 18-24 months to develop. And even then it’s no guarantee it will work. Even if a person has it they might not have symptoms but can pass it on to a person who might not be so fortunate. Look no further than the vacation-goers at the Lake of the Ozarks who had a lot of fun dancing around the golden calf but later had a person diagnosed with COVID19 who’s schedule showed they went everywhere possible in the area during that party weekend. Next week we should see if they spread the virus to others based on the incubation period.

    When there was only one known death in the US due to the virus in January and five months later there’s been 115,000 it’s the speed and growth of the virus that should be a concern. Is it wise at this point to begin the process of reopening? It took centuries to finally eradicate smallpox. I get that the economy is a concern and is driving the direction that MLS and soon other sports are taking however the US has had 47 recessions in its history, the last one, The Great Recession, lasted from 12/07 to 6/09. Everyone of those recessions the US bounced back. Money is replaceable, a human life is not.

    • art thiel

      Fair points, John. I understand the urgency for sports to return, because many livelihoods are dependent. And I understand that even when the infection turns into covid-19, more than 90 percent survive, particularly in the cohort of young and healthy. But those numbers don’t reflect the impact on the health-care system nor the long-term health damage to some patients.

      As Fauci said, we’re in the beginning. We just can’t know many things yet.

      And the MLS plan does not require quarantining the hotel personnel who will encounter players. I realize that if every one masks up and stays apart, the risk is reduced. But it is asking a lot for many minimum-wage people to do this for seven weeks for the sake of what is a non-essential entertainment.

  • Kirkland

    MLS and the union just settled a CBA, which was agreed to before the season but hadn’t been officially ratified because of the pandemic shutdown, before finalizing this tournament. So the players had to have been aware of the health risks you mentioned before signing off on it. I wonder how much of this was due to both sides needing money. The owners were staring at a $1 billion shortfall (horrendous for an established league, let alone one just marking a quarter-century) and the MLSPA had to swallow a 7.5 percent pay cut (which, for players on the five-figure minimum salary, is huge). Reminds me of how some non-essential businesses kept working despite the health risks, because shutting down meant going broke and losing the mortgage.

    The best-case scenario would’ve been that the country had had an effective pandemic plan from day one, which would’ve gotten the country functioning better than now. Notice that the sports that have returned — South Korean baseball, German soccer, New Zealand Rugby — were in countries that did a pretty damned good job of controlling the virus.

    • art thiel

      Yes, a federal plan would have been a best-case scenario, instead of 50-state pickup. And yes, MLS, like every pro sports league, is driven almost purely by money. And yes, Florida is the state with the most aggressive return of the virus, just in time for the MLS, NBA and GOP convention in Jacksonville.

  • Kirkland

    The international makeup of the league also makes post-tourney resumption interesting. As it stands, persons entering Canada must undergo a 14-day quarantine. What do you then do with the “home” games for Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal?

    • art thiel

      I believe players and staff will be deemed “essential workers.” No joke.