Soccer newsletter: MLS could be back sooner than most other sports
Hello, and welcome to another edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and we start today with MLS where, in the last six days, 11 of the 26 teams saw players return to their training centers for individual workouts under strict social-distancing rules.
What are they training for? Well the Washington Post’s Steve Goff, sourcing multiple people familiar with the plan, reported late Monday that the league has proposed bringing all of its teams to Orlando, Fla., to resume the season early this summer at the Disney sports complex and other locations in the area.
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The players, coaches and support staff for the teams, numbering more than 1,000, would be quarantined at a resort near Disney World for an undetermined amount of time. Disney owns ESPN and ABC, MLS rightsholders who would broadcast the games played behind closed doors.
The plan apparently has come together rapidly because the league was also considering another proposal that would see teams go to as many as three sites – Dallas and Kansas City, Kan., in addition to Orlando – to stage competitive games in late June or early July. That plan has not been totally abandoned.
All three states were among the first to reopen after brief coronavirus lockouts with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis going so far as to declare sports as essential business, clearing the way for Jacksonville to play host to a televised UFC card in an empty arena last weekend.
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A formal announcement of the new plan could be made before the end of the month, which would probably make MLS the first major professional sports league in North America to resume games since the COVID-19 pandemic suspended competition in early March.
Under the proposal players and staff members would be tested regularly, the Post reported, but several other hurdles remain including approval from the players. And Galaxy defender Daniel Steres appeared to speaking for many when he said he’s not sure the idea of a team-wide — much less a league-wide — quarantine can work.
“You have to go to a single location and wherever that may be, there can’t be more spread of the virus there,” he said. “Then you have to put us in a hotel that’s got to be essentially locked down. You can’t have any touch with the outside world. That’s nearly impossible.”
Many players are also likely to balk at the prospect of being separated from their families for an extended period. However the league may have a substantial card to play to win their approval. ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle, who has been closely following the financial ramifications of COVID-19, reported Monday that the league has made a formal proposal to the union that calls for 20% pay cuts across the board, in addition to other financial reductions that could run into the tens of millions of dollars.
MLS executives, including commissioner Don Garber, agreed to 25% pay cuts of their own last month. Might Garber retract the request for player salary reductions if the union signs off on the Orlando plan?
In an interview with Nashville SC’s website last week – one the league has been sharing widely – Garber said he was “more optimistic about what a return-to-play plan would look like. A month ago, we were very pessimistic.”
Eventually MLS would like to see teams return to their home markets to play in front of their fans; the league’s two largest sources of revenue are sponsorships and ticket sales so a season without fans would be a severe blow to the bottom line. The slow reopening of training facilities may be something of a test balloon to see how feasible that might be as well.
MLS has teams in 17 states, the District of Columbia and three Canadian provinces and each jurisdiction has its own guidelines regarding the novel coronavirus. So while staging games in Florida, home to two MLS teams, might go forward without a problem, more than half the 26 teams play in states still observing COVID-19 restrictions.
In California, home to three MLS teams, Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday he could not promise the state would be able to hold Major League Baseball games, even behind closed doors, by July. That was optimistic compared to the opinion of Dr. Jeff Smith, executive officer for Santa Clara County, where the San Jose Earthquakes play.
“Sorry to say, I don’t expect that we’ll have any sports games until at least Thanksgiving,” he said last month. “And we’ll be lucky to have them by Thanksgiving.”
Pushing forward is a gamble for MLS, whose teams suspended play March 12 after just two of 34 games. But if Garber can make it work and make MLS the first league to restart play, it’s a gamble that could pay off handsomely. The league would gain long term in terms of attention and prestige while in the short term it would gain in terms TV ratings and sponsorship dollars while the rest of the U.S. sports landscape remains vacant.
A question of timing
A hint at just how fast the Orlando plan came together can probably be found in the league’s rush to reopen team training facilities for individual workouts last week.
MLS put a moratorium on team practice sessions on March 13 – a ban it has extended five times.
But then, before the last ban expired, it announced clubs could reopen training complexes last Wednesday for voluntary, closely supervised workouts. Four teams -- Atlanta United, Inter Miami, Orlando City and Sporting Kansas City — had players on the field that first day. Five others, including LAFC, began a day later.
Four more teams, including the Galaxy and Colorado Rapids, were scheduled to have players work out Monday but both teams failed to receive clearance from local health officials. A Galaxy spokesman said the team will try again on Wednesday. LAFC also hopes to resume individual workouts at its Performance Center later this week after being asked by the county to temporarily postpone them.
To open their training centers, teams must follow a detailed protocol that includes standardized screening and temperature checks; staggered arrivals and departures for players and staff to assure safe-distancing in the parking lot; and the use of personal protective equipment, including facemasks, on the way to and from the field.
Only four players can train at a time and they must stay in their own clearly-marked quadrant on an outdoor field. Teammates are not allowed to interact with one another while training and players are banned from using locker rooms, weight rooms and most other indoor facilities.
Teams must also adhere to local COVID-19 guidelines, but the sessions are a clear first step toward the resumption the small-group training sessions that would be needed to prepare teams for the resumption of games in June or July – in Orlando or wherever.
Daniel Guzman, the head performance coach for LAFC, estimated teams would probably need a three- to four-week training camp. The sessions teams have held in the last week consisted mainly of agility drills, some running and limiting ball-handling. But for both the players and staff, just getting inside the training facility and seeing one another in person for the first time in two months was a sign of progress.
“It’s obviously a great feeling,” LAFC midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye said, who has been biking to keep fit. “Just that team aura again felt good. It’s a lot of fitness-based things now. You can’t really pass. We just did a lot of running to get that base back together.”
Added coach Bob Bradley: “Everybody’s being smart about it but yes, just in a general way, I prefer to have some interaction. I’ll find out how they’re doing, ask how their families are. See them have a chance to get on the field and run around, all those things are positive.
“The return to play in all sports, that’s different. So all of use are adapting. We all understand the importance of following the guidelines for each phase.”
The English Premier League moved a big step closer to resuming when the government on Monday gave the go-ahead to a June 1 restart behind closed doors, providing certain criteria including no new spikes in COVID-19 cases have been met.
It is up to the league how and when the season would resume, with one option calling for the use of neutral sites.
The EPL, which suspended its season March 13, is the second of Europe’s five major soccer leagues to be given government approval to return. Germany’s Bundesliga and the second-tier Bundesliga 2 are scheduled to resume their seasons in empty stadiums this weekend while Spain’s La Liga has set a tentative restart date of June 12, although Spain’s health minister said recently no final decision has been made and it may be later in the summer before games resume.
Teams in Italy’s Serie A have been cleared to resume training May 18 but the league has no date to begin play. The rest of the soccer season in France, meanwhile, was canceled by the government two weeks ago, days after the Dutch Eredivisie canceled its season.
The EPL has 92 games left on its schedule and Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the House of Commons that restoring some sports “could provide a much-needed boost to national morale.” Yet clubs remain divided over the use of neutral sites and the possibility of abandoning the season was discussed on a league conference call Monday night.
The U.K.’s COVID-19 death toll topped 32,000 on Monday, trailing only the United States. Only the U.S. and Spain have had more cases.
EPL teams have already returned to their respective training grounds while observing government-mandated social-distancing guidelines. Once-beaten Liverpool (27-1-1) leads second-place Manchester City (18-7-3) by 25 points atop the table, meaning it needs just six points in nine games to clinch its first-ever EPL title.
Let’s make a deal
As expected, lawyers representing the two-time reigning World Cup champion women’s national team have filed an appeal of a ruling they lost in their gender discrimination suit against U.S. Soccer.
That may be a bad idea.
Earlier this month district court Judge R. Gary Klausner rejected the players’ arguments that they were paid less than the men’s national team for performing the same work, pointing to a collective-bargaining agreement the team negotiated with the federation that guarantees the women a base salary of $100,000 a year, plus another $72,500 for playing in the National Women’s Soccer League, the domestic league U.S. Soccer subsidizes.
The federation pays players on the men’s national team only game-day bonuses that max out at $17,625. That’s nearly double what the women can earn for playing one UWSNT game but the women’s bonuses are paid in addition to the salary and benefits they get from their CBA.
“The argument that women gave up a right to equal pay by accepting the best collective-bargaining agreement possible in response to the federation’s refusal to put equal pay on the table is not a legitimate reason for continuing to discriminate against them,” Molly Levinson, spokeswoman for the USWNT, said in a statement announcing an immediate appeal to the Ninth Circuit court of appeals.
Lawyers for the players requested a June 8 hearing on the matter and also asked for a postponement in the main trial, scheduled to begin June 16 in Los Angeles. The trial has already been delayed once by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet despite the flurry of legal activity, momentum seems to be building toward a settlement that will fall far short of the $66 million in damages and back pay the women were seeking. And as we discussed here last week, that may be the best remedy given that the appeals process could take as long as two years with no guarantee of success. (And it would almost certainly end with the federation and many other sports organizations, including the NWSL, dealing with dire financial circumstances caused by the coronavirus pandemic.)
“I think that we’ve been very transparent about our openness to a settlement,” world player of the year Megan Rapinoe said last week on “CBS This Morning.” “Ultimately what we want to get to is something that’s fair and equal. And if that comes in the form of a settlement, we are definitely open to that.
“I don’t think anybody is dying to go into litigation or go to trial or go through a lawsuit. This has been a very arduous process as players. We’re always open to that.”
Federation president Cindy Parlow Cone understands and sympathizes with the arguments the current national team is making in court. But her time in office may be limited; a special election to fill the remainder of former president Carlos Cordeiro’s term will be held in February and Cone does not seem eager to run.
That leaves the USWNT with less than nine months to negotiate an agreement with a favorable president or roll the dice and bet on the longshot chance that they win their appeal.
If the USWNT is serious about wanting lasting change and not just more money for the players on the current roster, the opportunity to make a deal is there. But with the clock ticking down to February’s election, it may not be there for long.
Speaking of the U.S. women’s national team, Alex Morgan, long the face of that team, and her husband, former Galaxy midfielder Servando Carrasco, welcomed their first child last week.
Daughter Charlie Elena Carrasco was born May 7 at 11:30 a.m.
Morgan, who was working out deep into her pregnancy, was expected to give birth in April and had hoped to be back on the field in time for this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, where the soccer competition was scheduled to begin in late July. With the Olympics now delayed a year by the COVID-19 outbreak Morgan, 30, has an additional 12 months to prepare.
Here’s one place Morgan’s daughter won’t be able to play
The abrupt closure of the Galaxy’s five-team elite girls’ academy last month has caused substantial ripples in a local development community already bruised by U.S. Soccer’s April 15 decision to end support of a nationwide development academy program that had been home to several dozen girls’ programs, including the one run by the Galaxy.
Yet in the period between U.S. Soccer’s decision and the shuttering of the Galaxy’s groundbreaking program – the first girls academy fully funded by an MLS team – two weeks later, players and parents say the team kept them in the dark. So while girls on other DA-affiliated teams quickly moved to ones belonging to the Elite Clubs National League (ECNL), the Galaxy players stayed put. And when the Galaxy academy also closed its doors, many of its 80-plus players were left stranded.
Most members of the academy coaching staff were also let go. Kevin Hartman, the two-time MLS Cup champion goalkeeper who was director of the 3½-year-old academy, will remain with the Galaxy as part of the soccer operations department.
The father of one player affected took issue with the team’s statement that it made an immediate effort to help girls find place with other clubs.
“This is simply not true,” said the father, who did not want his named to be used. “The LAG team failed to communicate with the girls for three weeks [following] the announcement by U.S. Soccer. This left players scrambling to find spots on teams throughout Southern California.”
Other players, who had put themselves in position to be recruited by top colleges, suddenly found themselves having to wait to try out for a new team or being forced to drop a level or more in play, potentially hurting their college opportunities.
“The staff treated my daughter very well overall and created a great training environment,” the father added. “She had a good coach and really liked the staff.”
“When we look back, people like Ekaterina are going to be the heroes of 2020. I can see that quality in Ekaterina. She seems like a strong person that could handle the stress of working on the front lines. I will thank her when I see her next.”
Two-time women’s world player of the year Carli Lloyd upon learning that World Cup referee Ekaterina Koroleva is also a physician’s assistant in San Jose, fighting on the front lines of the battle against COVID-19.
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