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Soccer newsletter: A mother’s plea amid the coronavirus crisis

Hello, and welcome to another edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and we begin today with a plea from a worried mother.

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Martha, who asked that her real name not be used, has a son who works in MLS. He’s not a player, but he’s on the game-staff of an MLS team, and Martha wrote from abroad — she requested I don’t identify the country either — to ask why her son can’t come home while the season is suspended by the coronavirus outbreak.

“When will the MLS accept that the football season is over and release the players and staff to return to their home country and families?” she wrote. “With the uncontrolled growth of COVID-19 in the U.S. there is no way team sports will be resuming by May 10 and this delay in the announcement means that more borders are closing and it will get harder and harder to get to their families. We need a decision now! This is about life and death, not sponsors and money.”

I phoned Martha on Sunday afternoon, and she returned to the same theme: This break is going to be longer than two months.

“They’re not going to start playing on May 10,” she said. “We all know that, don’t we? Don’t we all know that? It’s spreading out of control across the world, including America. You can’t put all your players at risk.” So in the meantime, the league’s teams shouldn’t hold their staffs hostage.

In addition to suspending games at least six more weeks, the league has barred teams from training together until at least Saturday. It’s a moratorium that has already been extended once, and while it is enforced, the league has required players and staff to remain in each team’s home market.

Major League Baseball took a different approach, giving players the choice of remaining in their team’s spring-training city, returning to the team’s primary market or going home — whether that means the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Japan or South Bend, Ind.

“That’s the right approach to make,” Martha said.

MLS declined to address its restrictions on the record and did not provide either a defense or a rationale for them. But Martha isn’t the only one who has questioned them.

Bob Foose, executive director of the MLS players union, raised the same issue in a recent conversation with Paul Tenorio, the excellent soccer reporter with the Athletic.

“We certainly want to see the ban lifted,” Foose said. “The thing that’s gotten a little bit lost — and this may be true on the management side — is given the time of year and the way MLS works, there are a lot of players in the league who aren’t really, right now, in what they consider to be their homes. They just got off the road for preseason and often don’t secure places to live until they get back in the market. Guys are in brand-new apartments that are not fully furnished. There are international guys who have barely been in the city they are in right now.

“For those guys there is a substantial pull, particularly domestic players, a substantial pull, to what they consider their homes. I think this calls for more flexibility than is currently there and we will work with the league towards that. We’ve had these conversations.”

To be sure, the issue isn’t black and white. Martha’s son said he feels safe in his MLS market, where he has access to the team’s medical staff and where he continues to get paid, even though he’s not working. The job he has is one he’s worked a lifetime to get and leaving, he fears, could jeopardize that — hence his mother’s reluctance to allow her name and homeland to appear in print.

But while Martha lauded MLB’s decision as a humane one, many baseball officials are already expressing concern that travel bans or visa restrictions could prevent players from returning to the U.S. and Canada when teams are ready to resume training.

Martha is worried about the same thing, only in the opposite direction. What if her Southern Hemisphere nation, which has been only scratched by the coronavirus, blocks flights from the U.S.? The longer MLS makes its players and staff hunker in place, the greater the chance that will happen.

In fact, it’s already started. Martha’s country has advised its citizens abroad — like her son — to return home while the U.S. is advising people not to leave.

“When the MLS makes the announcement that the season isn’t going to go ahead — because it can’t possibly, this isn’t the time to play football,” there won’t be any way for her son to come home, she said.

“It’s horrific,” she continued. “It’s not about being in control. It’s about wanting your family close. I’m just worried about him being stranded.”

Martha said she hasn’t talked to others in her predicament but insisted she can’t be the only one who feels as she does. MLS has nearly 750 players and an almost equal number of team employees — and each one has a mother.

“None of us used to think about all this,” she said. “Because it’s unprecedented.”

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Coronavirus update

Speaking of the coronavirus, the pandemic is continuing to force the postponement, alternation and cancellation of competitions all over the world.

The biggest, of course, was the announcement this morning that the International Olympic Committee is postponing the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo until next year.

Last week, the Turkish Super Lig and the Russian Premier League were the last two major European leagues to shut down when they halted playing. And while Australia’s A-League played a game Monday — with Newcastle beating Melbourne City 2-1 behind closed doors — the league shut down indefinitely on Tuesday.

By stopping play earlier this month, the five top European leagues have already lost an estimated $7.5 billion, said Bernard Caiazzo, president of the group that represents the teams in France’s top-tier Ligue 1. Caiazzo said Monday the French season won’t resume until “at best June 15” and without government assistance, half the league’s 20 teams could be forced into bankruptcy.

UEFA, meanwhile, has postponed the finals of both the men’s and women’s Champions League and the Europa League, which were scheduled for mid- to late May.

The situation in Spain

Spain’s La Liga suspended its season on March 12, the same day MLS halted play in the U.S. and Canada. And just as in MLS, players were sent home with individualized training programs and told to stay away from their team’s training complex until further notice.

Sevilla captain Jesús Navas, whose team is third in the league table and in the knockout rounds of the Europa League, said he wants to see the season resume eventually. But only under the right conditions.

“Hopefully the championships can be finished, because that would mean that we have ended the coronavirus and have returned to normal,” he wrote in Spanish in an email interview. “The most important thing is to beat the coronavirus.”

For Ramón Rodríguez, Sevilla’s director of soccer, the team is in uncharted waters.

“Well, from the point of view that the main purpose of this entity is sports activity, and we have no sports activity, it is difficult to adapt to this reality. Without football, our day-to-day life loses its meaning,” he said. “However there is no other choice but to deal with the circumstances.

“I can tell you that the following week has been one of the most exhausting I can remember. We have had meetings, all by video call, between the different government bodies of the club and with other institutions. Obviously, I have not been out of the house since Friday the 13th, because I think you have to set an example and be responsible. The battle of the coronavirus must be won by all of us.”

But Rodríguez, better known as Monchi, has managed to find some positives in what has otherwise been a challenging situation.

“My work takes up a lot of time, it takes me out of the house a lot. Now I am at home,” he said. “I am with my family much longer and that always adds up. Also in the face of this adversity I am maturing.

“Everything will pass, everything will turn out well. And when we get out of this we will give much more value to events and moments of our life than before. Because they were daily, we did not value in their fair measure.”

Like Navas, his captain, Monchi hopes the season can resume — sooner rather than later. Sevilla is having its best season since 2006-07, when it finished third in La Liga and won both the UEFA Super Cup and Europa League. But he doesn’t believe soccer comes ahead of the coronavirus fight.

“We have to see how this pandemic evolves,” he said. “Logically I want to be optimistic. All of us, to the best of our ability, must make an effort so that the competitions end. But none of that makes sense if we don’t first defeat the coronavirus.

“Health first, then everything else.”

Quotebook

“I’m bummed out because I love training and I love putting in the work every day and seeing how good I can possibly be. And I’m bummed that I’m not able to play games for the Galaxy right now. I was a big fan of this team and now I have the chance to play for the team that I supported as a kid of it’s put on hold. That part sucks.”
Galaxy midfield Sacha Kljestan on some of the non-coronavirus drawbacks to having the MLS season suspended

Podcast

Don’t miss my weekly podcast on the Corner of the Galaxy site as co-host Josh Guesman and I discuss the Galaxy each Monday. You can listen to the most recent podcast here.

From the mailbag

Since we don’t have any games to talk about, how about you guys send me questions and I’ll try to answer them? Today’s query comes from Peter Poole of Temecula, who writes:

“Just a random thought, which occurred to me this morning: with the coronavirus shutting down sports events, might it be possible that MLS ends up rescheduling this season to more or less the same schedule as European football? Might it be a trial run to see what happens? Maybe American TV time-slot availability would be the killer, though? It always bugs me that MLS and USA soccer doesn’t line up with FIFA dates available for service to national teams, among other things.”

It bugs you and just about everybody else, Peter. But before we can talk about where we might be going, we have to understand how we got here. The large, mature and relatively self-sufficient MLS we have today is nothing like the league that debuted 25 seasons ago.

In 1996, the 10 MLS teams all played in NFL or college football stadiums, so scheduling would have been difficult if the soccer and football seasons overlapped. Those problems could be worked out — the Galaxy shared Dignity Health Sports Park with the NFL’s Chargers for three seasons, and nine current MLS teams have football or baseball roommates — but they only bring unnecessary headaches.

But there are other reasons why MLS went with a spring-to-fall season that are more entrenched. The league’s founders wanted to avoid the harsh winter weather in places like New England; the tradeoff was harsh summer weather in Dallas and now Houston. However nothing loomed as a larger challenge than the popularity of college and professional football, and those obstacles are still there.

The current MLS schedule gives the league a five-month run before the NFL and college football seasons begin. And the MLS season ends before the BCS and NFL playoffs begin.

For most of its schedule, MLS has little more than baseball to worry about. That makes it easier for the league to entice broadcasters looking for live sports to fill an otherwise thin summer calendar. With MLS already beginning negotiations for a new TV deal, that’s an advantage the league is not about to give away.

The summer schedule has helped in other ways too. Because late May to mid-August is a soccer-free time in most of the world, MLS is now being shown in a record 190 countries and territories. That not only brings precious revenue, but it also grows the league’s brand. Few international players now coming to MLS show up already familiar with the league and its teams.

So while MLS’ schedule leaves the league out of sync with the rest of the world when it comes to transfer windows and international fixtures, it does benefit the league in other ways. As a result, playing the suspended 2020 season through to a finish in 2021, then reorienting future seasons to more closely match the rest of the world, seems unlikely.

Besides, just wait until 2022. With the World Cup in Qatar moving to November and December that year, MLS players will not only show up game fit, but their league will be the only one in the world that won’t have to change to accommodate a winter World Cup.

Have a soccer question of your own? Email me at kevin.baxter@latimes.com and if we use your question in the newsletter, you’ll win … well, nothing. But you will be able to show your friends and family your name in print.

Until next time...
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