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Soccer newsletter: Orlando Pride’s cautionary tale

The Orlando Pride in September 2019.
Orlando Pride midfielder Kristen Edmonds (12) and Sky Blue FC midfielder Raquel Rodriguez (11) jump to head the ball during the first half of an NWSL match on Sept. 29, 2019, in Harrison, N.J.
(Steve Luciano / Associated Press)

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 COVID-19, because while professional leagues across the country seem to think they’re done with the pandemic, the virus is making it clear it is not done with sports.

The latest sign of the novel ability of the novel coronavirus to disrupt our fun and games came Monday when the Orlando Pride was forced to withdraw from the NWSL’s Challenge Cup tournament in Utah after six players and four staff members tested positive for the coronavirus. And while that development is notable on its own, it is also being seen in some places as a flashing yellow caution light for MLS and the NBA, which are both planning to resume their seasons in Orlando, Fla., next month.

Florida, as the Pride case helps illustrate, has become the epicenter of a coronavirus blitz in the South and Southwest. On Monday the state became the seventh to top 100,000 cases and more than a fifth of those were reported in the last week. The number of positive tests in Florida has more than doubled in the last 29 days.

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And while central Florida, where Orlando is, hasn’t been hit nearly as hard as Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties to the south, the rising number of cases is part of a trend raising concerns among athletes in all sports.

Baseball’s Philadelphia Phillies and Toronto Blue Jays shut their Tampa-area training facilities after six players either tested positive or showed symptoms last week, and the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning closed its facilities Friday after three players tested positive. Two MLS teams, Atlanta United and Inter Miami, also had players test positive in the last week.

But Atlanta President Darren Eales said that proves the testing programs are working.

“These are the things that are going to happen and that’s why it’s so important that we have consistent testing,” Eales said in a conference call with reporters Monday. “It’s so you can limit any exposure once you get a positive test.”

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“The reality is that the procedure for the tournament was built up over a lot of discussions with all of the medical experts, whether that’s medical experts guiding the league, medical experts guiding the players’ union,” he added. “They came up with the concept, and you’ve seen that with both MLS and the NBA, which are in a similar type of scenario.”

Maybe. But while the league is pushing forward with its July 8 restart as if nothing has happened, players seem more concerned. Because while they will be under strict quarantine and tested repeatedly during their time in Orlando, workers at Disney’s Swan and Dolphin resort, where MLS will be headquartered, will be free to come and go, poking a giant hole in the league’s protective bubble.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, the positive tests for the NWSL were traced to a visit by some players to a bar in Orlando.

“There’s a growing fear amongst players right now,” one player told the Athletic. “We agreed to this when the cases in Florida were low and now that they’ve spiked, there’s real concern on a number of levels.”

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Teams can begin arriving in Orlando on Wednesday, although they aren’t required to arrive until a week before their first game, meaning some teams won’t check in until the Fourth of July.

MLS has not released the schedule for the World Cup-style tournament, but the format for the 35-day competition has been announced and the groups have been set, with Southern California rivals LAFC and the Galaxy both landing in Group F. The 26 teams, divided into six groups, will play three games in the first round with those results counting in the MLS regular-season standings. The top two teams in each group, plus the four best third-place teams, will advance to a single-elimination knockout stage.

At stake is a $1.1-million prize-money purse and, for the champion, an automatic berth in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League.

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The tournament groupings

GROUP A

Eastern Conference

  1. Orlando City SC
  2. Inter Miami CF
  3. New York City FC
  4. Philadelphia Union
  5. Chicago Fire FC
  6. Nashville SC

GROUP B

Western Conference

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  1. Seattle Sounders FC
  2. FC Dallas
  3. Vancouver Whitecaps FC
  4. San Jose Earthquakes

GROUP C

Eastern Conference

  1. Toronto FC
  2. New England Revolution
  3. Montreal Impact
  4. D.C. United

GROUP D

Western Conference

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  1. Real Salt Lake
  2. Sporting Kansas City
  3. Colorado Rapids
  4. Minnesota United FC

GROUP E

Eastern Conference

  1. Atlanta United FC
  2. FC Cincinnati
  3. New York Red Bulls
  4. Columbus Crew SC

GROUP F

Western Conference

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  1. LAFC
  2. LA Galaxy
  3. Houston Dynamo
  4. Portland Timbers FC

Their Pride isn’t the only thing that’s been wounded

While MLS is sticking to its plans for its tournament, the NWSL had no choice but to pull the Orlando Pride out of its 29-day Challenge Cup tournament in Salt Lake City. The competition will make the NWSL the first U.S. professional sports league to resume play since the coronavirus halted competition March 12, and Commissioner Lisa Baird was hoping the newfound visibility — including two games on CBS — would elevate its profile.

But those hopes were fading even before the Pride got sick, taking with them a roster than included Brazilian star Marta and U.S. national team players Ashlyn Harris, Ali Krieger and Emily Sonnet.

Over the weekend, Carli Lloyd, a two-time world player of the year, pulled out of the competition because of a knee injury, while Megan Rapinoe, the reigning world player of the year, had previously said she was skipping the tournament because of concerns over the spread of COVID-19. The virus was also expected to keep Christen Press away; Alex Morgan, who gave birth to her first child in May, won’t play either.

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The four women, who rank in the NWSL’s top 10 in career goals, have combined to score 151 times in 342 league appearances, and their absence robs the tournament of many of its most recognizable names. Saturday’s opener between the two-time defending league champion North Carolina Courage and the Portland Thorns will be the first women’s professional club match broadcast live on a national over-the-air network in the U.S., but with the league missing its own deadline to release tournament rosters Monday, it’s impossible to know who might be playing.

The Pride, scheduled to leave for Utah on Wednesday, said the 10 people who tested positive were asymptomatic and will be quarantined for two weeks. People who may have had close contact with the team members, including housemates, have been notified and are being monitored for symptoms.

A second round of tests will be conducted to confirm the initial results, the league said; the 10 affected people will continue to undergo additional exams.

“It was determined that it would be in the best interest of the health and safety of the players, the staff and the rest of the league that the Pride voluntarily withdraw” from the tournament, Amanda Duffy, the team’s executive vice president, said in a statement. “This was obviously a difficult and disappointing outcome for our players, our staff and fans, however this is a decision that was made in order to protect the health of all involved in the Challenge Cup.”

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Oh, and the teams that make it to Utah later this week? Well, they may not be safe either. The state is 12 days into what health officials are calling a coronavirus surge, and if Utah does not cut its current rate of COVID-19 infections by more than half by July 1, authorities fear hospitals could soon be overwhelmed.

The Challenge Cup was originally scheduled as a 25-game tournament that would begin with a group stage to eliminate one of the nine teams while determining seeding for an eight-team single-elimination quarterfinal round. With Orlando out of the event, the format will be redone.

Unlike MLS, which is planning on an abbreviated regular season following its Orlando tournament, the Washington Post is reporting the Challenge Cup is all there will be this year for NWSL. The league’s eighth season was to have started April 18 with the championship match scheduled for Nov. 14. Losing that is another body blow for the league, which was hoping to build on the momentum women’s soccer got from last summer’s record-setting World Cup in France.

Is the Galaxy expanding?

The NWSL may be losing teams from its tournament but it could soon be gaining one in Southern California if Julie Uhrman, whom the Athletic’s Meg Linehan describes as a “serial entrepreneur,” is successful in winning the rights to put an expansion team in the market.

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And the Galaxy may be involved, though how deeply remains to be seen.

According to Linehan, Uhrman’s ownership group and the NWSL have begun talks, but both sides are taking it slow, waiting to see how the Challenge Cup — which is not exactly off to a good start — works out. Southern California, home to two of the top college programs in the country in USC and UCLA, has not had a women’s professional team since the LA Sol folded in 2010.

The U.S. has gone through three women’s professional leagues since then.

The Sol was a sister club of the Galaxy, sharing an owner as well as a stadium and training facilities. The MLS team has yet to clarify its involvement with the new franchise, which could be limited to sharing facilities or could evolve to include an ownership stake.

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Less than two months ago, the Galaxy abruptly disbanded its girls’ youth academy, leaving more than 80 players without a team. When the Galaxy opened the academy 3½ years ago, it was the first girls’ academy to be fully funded by an MLS team.

“At present, having a girls’ academy wasn’t tenable for us as a club in the current environment,” a Galaxy spokesman said.

The club has yet to comment publicly on the negotiations to bring an NWSL team to Carson.

Let’s talk about it

Deeper involvement between MLS and the NWSL would be a good thing for several reasons, not the least of which are the lessons the women can teach the men about labor negotiations.

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Just look at the vastly different experiences the two leagues had in recent bargaining sessions with their respective players’ unions. Both the MLS and NWSL had their seasons interrupted by the pandemic, which shuttered leagues around the world. Both needed a blueprint for coming back, and players and owners in both leagues knew they would need to make sacrifices to get that done.

With MLS, those talks turned toxic. After the players agreed to more than $100 million in concessions, including 5% cuts in salary and reductions in team and individual bonuses, the league responding by drawing a line in the sand and giving the union less than two days to accept “a final offer” from management or risk the possibility of a lockout.

That came just five months after MLS and its players association were hailing a new spirit of cooperation following negotiations on a landmark five-year collective bargaining agreement. But the owners threw that new spirit, and much of the new CBA, out the window in bare-knuckle bargaining over the terms of next month’s MLS Is Back tournament.

It will take years for the league to repair the damage done to its relationship with the players.

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“Going from feeling like we were on a good negotiation to the threat of lockout if you don’t accept our deal, those are some tactics I would view as bullying and really just power plays,” Minnesota United midfielder Ethan Finley, the team’s union representative, said. “I don’t think players take too kindly to that.”

“It was the first time in my tenure I have ever seen the word ‘lockout’ come across the table,” he added. “You understand it’s a word not very often used when we’re at the negotiating table, even when we were discussing CBAs in past years. It’s a very serious thing and … a great disappointment for the player pool.”

Now contrast that with the NWSL, where both sides came out happy if not completely whole after agreeing to play a 25-game, 29-day tournament in Salt Lake City. (That’s not going to happen now, of course, but that failure has nothing to do with what happened at the bargaining table.)

Granted, players in the NWSL make far less money than those in MLS, leaving its teams with far less to fight over. The minimum salary in the NWSL is $20,000 and the maximum is $50,000; in MLS the figures are $63,547 and $612,500.

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And MLS players can make substantially more if they are considered designated players or have their salaries augmented with allocation money.

The team salary cap in NWSL is $650,000; in MLS it’s $4.9 million. (The salaries of U.S. and Canadian women’s national players are paid by their respective federations and those salaries do not count against the NWSL cap.)

All that may have heightened the sense that Baird and her players really were in this together while MLS Commissioner Don Garber felt secure in threatening to lock his players out. But whatever the reason, the women’s league quickly reached an accord with its players last month, allowing it to go ahead with its tournament and becoming the first professional sports league in the U.S. to do so — and they did it with a deal that included no cuts to salary, housing or benefits, with pay remaining at pre-COVID-19 levels.

“It’s just about the building of trust between us and the league. And realizing that we have the same goals,” said Emily Menges of the Portland Thorns, a member of the union’s executive board. “Theirs may be a little bit more monetary and ours are little bit more focused on players’ rights and everything [but] it still is like we want the success of the league. In order to get that, we both have to be happy and we both have to trust each other.

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“This year has been a massive, massive step toward that.”

That trust carried over to the complicated discussions regarding how players would be housed and cared for during the tournament, when teams will be quarantined in a “NWSL Village” and tested frequently for the virus.

“I don’t feel unsafe. And if I did, I know that they’ve been really trying to communicate with the players,” said Thorns’ midfielder Rocky Rodríguez. “Creating that communication helped. I do trust the protocols. I trust the process.”

That trust is likely to be deepened, not weakened, by the failed tests in Orlando. After all, the league caught and quarantined the infected players two days before they even left for the tournament — something Baird noted Monday.

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“The health and safety of our players and staff is our number one priority and our thoughts are with those players and staff fighting this infection, as well as the entire club in Orlando that have been impacted as a result,” the commissioner said in a statement. “We’re all obviously disappointed, but in the current environment, this is a situation that we have prepared for and we will now adjust our plans and schedules to reflect the circumstances.”

USL Championship may add fans to its comeback

And finally, the second-tier USL Championship has cleared its teams to resume contact training Wednesday, subject to approval from local and state health authorities.

“Our plan is to return to training in a limited, small-group capacity following the USL and [Orange County] Health Department guidelines and then ease into full training later in the week or early next week,” the Orange County Soccer Club said in a written statement.

Galaxy II, the MLS club’s USL Championship affiliate, is also expected to step up its training Wednesday, a team spokesman said.

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The league is scheduled to resume play July 11 and is cautiously optimistic some games could be played in front of fans, depending on local restrictions. That would make the USL Championship the first professional league in the U.S. to play before fans since March 12.

“To start, crowd capacity will vary from community to community depending on local and state health guidelines,” league spokesman Ryan Madden said.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced last month that his state will allow professional sporting events to be played before live crowds of up to 25% of a stadium’s capacity. Texas is home to four USL Championship teams.

The league will release more details about its return to play, including a revised competition schedule, later this week. The USL Championship suspended its season 3½ months ago after most teams had played just a game.

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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.

Quotebook

“I can’t tell you how good it feels. The quarantine was difficult for all of us. The home workouts, the running. It’s just different standing on the field with grass, having the ball at your feet, having your teammates back.”

Galaxy midfielder Gordon Wild, on the resumption of full team training in preparation for next month’s MLS Is Back tournament

Until next time...

Stay tuned for future newsletters. Subscribe here, and I’ll come right to your inbox. Something else you’d like to see? Email me. Or follow me on Twitter: @kbaxter11.

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