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 the only place we really can begin and that’s with the coronavirus.
The deadly pandemic has altered our lives in almost every imaginable way and a return to normal seems a long way off. Soccer is no exception, and though the sport is of little importance relative to the greater drama that is playing out, its absence is being felt nonetheless.
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“Sports teams, to the public, usually serve as this uniter, bringing people together in tough times. And we’re without that now,” LAFC general manager John Thorrington said. “There’s this great irony that moments like this put [sports] in perspective. It doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Yet when things like this happen, we do tend to turn to sports.”
Galaxy president Chris Klein agreed.
“There is a much bigger issue going on in the world, which I think is which is most important,” he said. “But people need a release and like to talk about sports.”
Talk is about all MLS is going to be able to offer for the time being however. The league has extended its moratorium on team training sessions three times, with the latest ban running through April 3. The season has been suspended until May 10.
Neither date is realistic.
It has been two weeks since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged that events with at least 50 people be canceled or postponed for at least eight weeks. That’s where the May 10 date came from.
Just think about how much has changed in those two weeks.
As of Monday night, with more than 160,000 people testing positive, the U.S. now leads the world in coronavirus exposure and accounts for more than 20% of the global cases. More than 3,000 Americans have died – more than perished in the Twin Towers terrorist attacks on 9/11 -- and the virus has infected people in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and four U.S. territories.
When the CDC issued its recommendation 15 days ago, less than 3,300 had tested positive and 62 had died.
According to the New York Times, at least 261 million people in 31 states, 82 counties, 18 cities and one territory are being asked to shelter in place. More than 3.3 million people have lost their jobs, hospitals are overwhelmed and Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, one of the state’s hardest hit by the outbreak, doesn’t expect the apex of the pandemic to hit there for another two weeks.
California may be a week behind that, underscoring the fact the virus is not following a uniform timeline around the country. With MLS teams based in 17 states and three Canadian provinces, it’s likely the curve will flatten at different times in different places but the league will have to wait for everyone to be out of danger before it can allow teams to resume practice sessions.
And until all 26 teams are cleared to train, no one can. That won’t happen by April 4, when the current moratorium expires, unless the league adopts an approach similar to that of Bundesliga club Borussia Dortmund, which returned to the field Monday with players training in pairs and observing social distancing protocols.
“It’s important that we get back on the field,” midfielder Emre Can told German broadcaster Sport1. “So it doesn’t get boring.”
Boredom is only part of it though because the longer the training moratorium continues, the more practice sessions teams will need before they can play again. Commissioner Don Garber has suggested a three- to four-week preseason camp before resuming the season.
What will that season look like? That all depends on when it starts.
In an interview with ESPN Garber said “our plan is to play as many games as we possibly can.”
Atlanta United president Darren Eales doubled down on that in a conference call with reporters Monday, saying the league, which was two games into its schedule when the season was suspended, plans to have each team play all 34 of its matches.
“We’re fortunate that we had just started our season,” Eales said. “We have the whole calendar year to reschedule the games we missed. The emphasis is on playing all 34 games plus the playoffs.”
Garber said the league will have to consider “unique and creative” options including regional play or holding games in empty stadiums. The league will probably opt out of the U.S. Open Cup and may have to cancel the Leagues Cup in order to lessen the fixture crunch this summer.
Even with all that it would be overly optimistic to expect MLS teams to play more than two dozen games the rest of this year. With that shortened schedule the playoffs will almost certainly stretch into December anyway, meaning an MLS season which started Feb. 29, the earliest date ever, will likely have the latest finish in history.
Here’s something else to think about: what happens if the league rushes back and a player or team official tests positive shortly after play resumes? The incubation period for COVID-19 can be as long as 14 days, meaning an infected player could have played as many as three games before knowing he was infected. The three teams he played against will have played three games of their own and those three teams may have played three other teams…the danger would be exponential, meaning the entire league would have to go back into quarantine for an undetermined time.
As Thorrington and Klein said, soccer would certainly be a welcome distraction from the danger and uncertainty we’re all experiencing now. But it can’t return until the coast is clear and it looks like it will be a while before that happens.
What about the mental side of the game?
Although players are doing what they can to stay fit, it’s obvious that weeks without a full training session will have an impact physically.
But what about mentally? California’s shelter in place order has forced everyone to change their daily routine and routine is something athletes have relied on most of their lives.
Players go to the same locker to change into the same clothes for practices that are always held at the same time and same place. Even the drills are often the same. For many, the routine rises to the level of superstition with players putting their uniforms on the same way each day, taking the same route to the field and stepping – or refusing to step – on the touchline.
All that went away earlier this month. The Galaxy held their last team training session March 12; LAFC’s final practice was the day before. (Click here to see how LAFC performance coach Daniel Guzman has helped keep his team together since.)
“That part doesn’t get talked about enough,” Galaxy midfielder Sacha Kljestan said. “Not just in an athlete’s world but in society right now. The mental health aspect of this is very difficult. People are lonesome and people are afraid.”
Both the Galaxy and LAFC have tried to get around that through group texts and conference calls and by checking in with each other frequently. But that isn’t always enough.
“Especially for single guys who are not from here, who maybe live on their own and they’re kind of isolated and they’re by themselves and they’re just watching Netflix,” Kljestan said.
It’s not just a problem with MLS teams. With soccer leagues shut down around the world, players in dozens of countries have been ordered to stay home and they are battling the same problems with isolation and dislocation.
“The best thing, or at least for me, in the life of a player is to live the day-to-day life of a dressing room. Especially if it is a healthy locker room, with a good group, such as the one we have this year,” Ramón Rodríguez, director of soccer for Spanish club Sevilla, told me in an email interview last week. “They talk to each other, they get motivated.”
With that missing Jesús Nava, Sevilla’s captain and a former World Cup champion, said players have to find other ways to cope.
“Mentalization is important,” he said. “We are in a situation that is not normal. From there, we must see in our daily physical activity an escape.
“The most difficult thing is to mange the mental plane. You have to be aware of the difficult scenario we have [and] be strong. Do not let yourself go, give your best every day. If you handle the situation on a mental level well, the rest comes along.”
The coronavirus pandemic has challenged people physically and mentally but it has also brought out the best in many. Neighbors are helping neighbors in countless way and soccer players have joined in, with some of the biggest stars stepping up the biggest.
Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Manchester City coach Pep Guardiola have each donated more than $1 million to fight the virus, with Guardiola’s money going to a hospital and charity in Barcelona while Messi’s donation will be split between medical centers in Barcelona and his native Argentina.
Juventus star Cristiano Ronaldo and his agent, Jorge Mendes, are each funding new intensive care wings at a hospital in their native Portugal. Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandowski also gave a million euros ($1.08 million) to fight the virus while teammates Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka pledged more than $1 million between them to start a fundraiser that will provide financial assistance to charities and social initiative across Germany.
Players on countless top European clubs, including Juventus, Atletico Madrid, Alaves, Espanyol, Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund. Borussia Monchengladbach and Bayern Munich, have agreed to significant pay cuts with that money going to team employees whose jobs were threatened. Juventus players and head coach Maurizio Sarri will forego salary through the end of the June, forfeiting $100 million, while Messi is giving up 70% of his weekly pay, about $463,000, so that none of the non-sporting staff’s earnings will be reduced.
Barca has also delivered 30,000 protective masks to the Catalonia government.
“As professionals, footballers belong to a very privileged group, so it’s only natural that we should be willing to take a cut in pay when necessary,” Bayern goalkeeper Manuel Neuer said. “Bayern employs over a thousand people, all of whom do an important job. As a team, we want to help them and give them security with this gesture.”
Players at German’s Union Berlin agreed to give up their salaries entirely during the pandemic. The club, which dropped into the third tier of German soccer following unification, made it back to the Bundesliga for the first time this season
“Our club’s purpose is football,” Union Berlin president Dirk Zingler said. “If it ceases to exist, then it will touch the core of our existence. The management, our staff, the squad and backroom staff have worked hard in recent months to ensure success in the Bundesliga. Now they are giving up a lot of money to get through this crisis together.”
In Italy, AS Roma’s charitable arm, Roma Cares, delivered care packages to elderly season-ticket holders. You can watch some of that by clicking here.
Players with Premier League clubs Bournemouth, Brighton, Burnley, Everton, Norwich City and West Ham called senior citizens in their cities to check in on them. Watford gave its stadium and the office and meeting space within it to a nearby hospital. The two Manchester teams are collecting items for local food banks and Manchester City gave 55,000-seat Etihad Stadium to the National Health Service, which will run training courses there for staff heading to the front line of the coronavirus fight.
Norwich goalkeeper Tim Krul even took a 94-year-old neighbor shopping.
“Little effort, great pleasure,” he said.
“Who am I to complain when the whole world is on fire?” he continued to the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf. “Attention should be paid to the nursing staff who walk straight into the fire for 14 consecutive hours to save human lives. I have unlimited admiration for that.”
(Click here to watch Everton manager Carlo Ancelotti surprise a fan.)
“These guys get viewed as human doings all the time rather than human beings. Based on what they do for a living, that’s who they are. I think the important thing is that they’re human first. We recognize that and say ‘hey, how’s it going at home?’ before the workout happens. And sometimes, if it doesn’t fit in the schedule, I’m not going to lose sleep over it. Aim for the next day.”
LAFC head performance coach Daniel Guzman on the balance and patience needed as he tries to keep his quarantined players mentally and physically engaged during the MLS training moratorium