Soccer newsletter: MLS has a lot riding on restart
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 the MLS Covid Cup, scheduled to start in Orlando, Fla., next week.
The 54-game competition -- officially called the MLS Is Back tournament, about the lamest name possible -- will mark the resumption of a season suspended by the COVID-19 pandemic on March 12. And given that the games are being played at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports in central Florida, the restart couldn’t come at a worse time and place.
Florida recorded 5,266 new COVID infections for the 24-hour period ending at 11 a.m. Eastern time Monday. In the last three days, 23,381 people tested positive and in the three weeks since MLS reached agreement with its players association to go forward with the Covid Cup, Florida’s daily coronavirus infection numbers have increased more than fivefold.
Sixty percent of the positive cases in Orlando, where the players will be staying, have come in the last two weeks. As a result testing centers are overwhelmed throughout the state and hospitals are rapidly nearing capacity.
“The trend is not reassuring,” Kathleen Sposato, who oversees infection control at Jackson Health, Miami-Dade County’s mammoth safety-net medical system, told my colleague Noam N. Levey. “We are very, very concerned.”
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Six MLS teams are already in the midst of that maelstrom, having checked into Disney’s Swan and Dolphin resort, where they will quarantined during the five-week tournament. Teams will continue reporting this week, including the Galaxy and LAFC.
And while the COVID-19 numbers are giving the two leagues pause, both have gone too far and invested too much time and treasure in preparing for their competitions to turn back now.
Last week MLS players received a detailed handbook telling them what to expect at the resort, which they are forbidden to leave for anything other than daily 90-minute training sessions and games, which will begin July 8. According to ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle, who received a copy of the 61-page manual, the resort will have eight security checkpoints as well as CCTV, allowing the league to make sure no one enters or leaves the complex without permission.
Each team will have its own floor at the hotel with 45 rooms for players and staff, a suite for the manager, meeting rooms and a lounge where guests can play table tennis, cards or video games. Players will also be allowed to play golf and go fishing or engage in yoga and meditation. But tedium inside the bubble, where some teams will remain for up to seven weeks, remains a major concern said Gavin Benjafield, LAFC’s performance coach.
“We as a staff are looking at things over and above what the league is providing,” he said. “How can we engage the players? How do we make the best out of the experience in what we’re doing there?
“We’re going to hit the middle of week two to week three -- you’re out of the honeymoon phase of arriving and you’ve done the walks and you’ve looked at all the big buildings and all those things around you -- but then that starts becoming a bit boring. And you’re like, ‘wow, we’re still here for another two weeks.’ That stretch is going to be tough.
“So yeah, we’ve got a couple of ideas of how to keep guys engaged.”
Teams will share training centers stuffed with a wide range of exercise equipment. Gym sessions will be limited to two hours per team per day and Benjafield said the rooms will undergo a thorough 2 1/2-hour cleaning between sessions. Despite all that, the protective bubble is far from impenetrable. In fact, if anything it’s porous with hundreds of hotel employees coming and going on a daily basis.
“We’ve certainly not ignored it. It is It is a conversation that you hear guys talking about,” Benjafield said of the dangers. “We try to redirect the conversation to just like, ‘Hey, what are the best practices that are in place? What are the best things that we can be doing?’ “
COVID-19 testing of players and staff will be extreme, beginning with at least two exams before teams board their charter flights to Florida. They will be tested again once arriving in Orlando and then every other day during the first two weeks in quarantine. Anyone testing positive will be isolated immediately. Players will also be required to wear facial coverings indoors at all times, expect in the privacy of their rooms.
Benjafield said he’s comfortable with the precautions, noting that the testing and quarantine measures are far more extensive than players are undergoing in Los Angeles, which has had almost as extreme a spike in COVID cases as Orlando.
“I’m not concerned,” he said. “We leave our training gates [in L.A.] and all of a sudden you’re outside of your own creative bubble. You leave your house to go to the supermarket, you’re outside of your own creative bubble. So when we’re in Orlando, we’re just in an oversized bubble.
“And yes, we have interactive moments. Staff serving food for us and walking by reception staff and such. So that for me is no different to the interactions that we have when we leave our training facility bubble. There is actually, in my opinion, zero way to eliminate cross contacts because we would literally have to go into a cave and hibernate for three months. It’s impossible to not have transmission.“
It’s clear not everyone shares Benjafield’s confidence. LAFC has yet to say publicly whether its captain, Carlos Vela, the reigning league MVP, will opt out of the tournament to stay home with his pregnant wife. The Galaxy’s Javier “Chicharito” Hernández, whose wife is also pregnant, has said he will play in Florida.
But both men are designated players with multi-million contracts who can afford to miss a paycheck. Another Southern California player, who asked to remain anonymous, said he can’t pass up the competition because he needs the money. However he admitted he’s frightened to go to Florida after losing a close relative to the virus in Europe.
Many players share those concerns: they’re going to Florida to play because they can’t afford not to, but they are wary about what will happen when they get there. Both the league and the players union saying they are monitoring the situation.
If you don’t test, you don’t have any cases
Speaking of COVID-19 transmissions MLS, which had previously declined to publicly release results of its coronavirus tests, issued a release Sunday saying that 18 players and six club staff members had tested positive since full-team training resumed June 4. A total of 668 players have been tested since early June.
Two of the 329 people tested in Orlando through Sunday were positive upon arrival, although the Texas soccer website 3rddegree.net, citing multiple unnamed sources, reported Monday at least three FC Dallas players have tested positive since landing in Orlando last Saturday. Six Dallas players – and possibly a seventh, according to the website -- have tested positive this month.
For Benjafield, it’s vital the league be open and accurate with those numbers. The players, after all, will know the real total and if they’re reading official MLS releases that contain inaccurate information, it could erode trust in the league.
“As a team, we are obviously on the testing schedule. And we’re just making sure that guys are well informed of when the test results are in,” he said. “Fortunately, we have had no players or staff test positive. I can imagine how fearful that would be within some teams that have had that happen to them.
“There’s a certain level of trust. And when that trust is broken by no fault of anyone, then your attention starts shifting again.”
This should be a time of celebration for MLS, which will become the first male professional sports league in the U.S. to resume play when its tournament kicks off next week. It beat the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball, trailing only the much smaller NWSL, which started its season last weekend. (More about that in a minute.)
Instead it’s become a time of fear and trepidation from which there appears to be no escape. With many of the teams already in Orlando and others arriving this week, it’s too late to turn back now. Baring disaster the tournament will go on and Commissioner Don Garber has a lot riding on that.
Garber, after all, poisoned his relationship with the players union to win the concessions in the collective-bargaining agreement needed to stage the tournament. He needs to tournament to make that pay off.
Meanwhile the league’s broadcast partners – especially ESPN – have made substantial investments in preparing for the tournament, as has the league, which has spent millions on charter flights, testing and securing a safe environment in Orlando. And with it growing increasingly unlikely MLS will play many games in front of paying fans this season, that TV money is looming large.
The league will rightly argue it has done as it can to protect the players and staff but if substantial numbers of people test positive, MLS will look as if it put profits before health. Even if the quarantine proves effective at preventing the spread of the virus, MLS may not win. With many Floridians waiting hours in line to get tested, the optics of professional athletes getting tested every two days doesn’t look good – despite the fact the tests MLS buys will not impact the number available to the general public.
MLS could take cover in the ample shadow cast by the NBA. Although that league isn’t scheduled to begin play in Orlando until the end of the month, teams are supposed to begin arriving next week and several players – including Portland’s Trevor Ariza and the Lakers’ Avery Bradley – say they won’t show. That number could swell.
“The level of concern has increased -- not just because of the increased levels in Florida, but throughout the country,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said last week.
The NBA was the first league to shut down for COVID-19 in March and a day later the NHL, MLS, Major League Baseball and the NCAA basketball tournament all announced they were suspending play too. If the NBA stays the course and goes forward with its plans to play at the same Disney facility in Orlando, it will give MLS substantial cover. But if the NBA decides to take its ball and go home, it will increase the pressure on Garber to do the same just as it did in March.
The only way for Garber to win is for the tournament to go off with relatively few problems and even fewer positive tests. But a lot of that is beyond his control.
How the Reds are like the Red Sox
A significant barrier was breached last week when Liverpool, among the most iconic clubs in world soccer, clinched the Premier League title, the only major trophy which has eluded it. Never mind the fact the Reds backed into it, winning the championship when second-place Manchester City lost to Chelsea last week.
And never mind the even-more-painful fact that social-distancing practices will prevent Liverpool from sharing the victory with its long-suffering fans at Anfield. The victory is still sweet for Liverpool, which last won a first-division title in 1990, two seasons before the EPL was formed.
Manchester United has won 13 titles since then, which makes it the New York Yankees of English soccer. That would also make Liverpool the Boston Red Sox.
Like the Red Sox, who won three of four World Series before trading Babe Ruth to the Yankees, Liverpool was the most successful club in the sport at one time, winning a record 18 first-division crowns, including five in the 1980s.
After Ruth left for the Bronx. the Red Sox had to wait 86 years to win another title. Liverpool’s wait was considerably less – although to Reds’ supporters it probably felt as long. And both teams did it under the same owner, American investment banker John Henry.
Liverpool’s stunning ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory over the last three decades not only rivaled the Red Sox for futility, but it also left its fans alongside the Mersey as fatalistic as those in alongside the Charles River in Boston.
In 2014, the Reds led the league with three matches to play when captain Steven Gerrard slipped and allowed Chelsea’s Demba Ba to rush by and score the goal that eventually relegated Liverpool to second, two points behind Manchester City. That was Liverpool’s version of Bill Buckner misplaying Mookie Wilson’s ground ball in the 1986 World Series.
In 2015, Gerrard was banished to MLS and manager Brendan Rodgers was sacked. Nine months after his mistake, Buckner was released.
In 2008-09 Liverpool had a league-low two losses, going unbeaten in its final 27 matches. But it also had 11 draws to finish with 86 points, four behind Manchester United. To that point just one team in EPL history had finished with that many points and not won the title.
The Reds broke that sad record last season, losing just once in league play, racking up 97 points and winning the Champions League title. Only two teams in EPL history had earned that many points in a season and unfortunately for Liverpool one of those was the 2018-19 Manchester City club, which finished a point ahead of the Reds.
With the Red Sox, success came two years after wunderkind Theo Epstein was named general manager. With Liverpool redemption came with the hiring of manager Juergen Klopp in October 2015. In the last four seasons, Klopp’s teams have won 101 games and lost 13 – only two since May 2018.
It’s a remarkable streak that has already produced a title this season but could also break some notable records. With seven games to play, Liverpool (28-1-2, 86 points) has a shot at City’s records for points (100) and wins (32) in a season. Earlier this year it tied the league record for consecutive victories with 18.
After ending its long winless streak in World Series play, Henry’s Red Sox went on to win three more in the next 13 seasons; Klopp has designs on a similar dynasty in Liverpool.
“For me it’s important that we improve and for me it’s important that we show the consistency still and for me it’s important that nobody wants to play us,” he told reporters. “I want to create atmospheres together with our supporters which you can tell your grandkids [about]. I want to see a specific way of football which is emotional, which is fast, which is full of action.
“If you stay humble and be ready to improve, then we have a chance to win more silverware. But only a chance because the other teams are still there.”
MLS will be following the NWSL across the restarting line for professional sports in the U.S., with the women’s league opening its season last Saturday when it kicked off the 23-game, eight-game Challenge Cup tournament in Utah. And the ladies have given the men a hard act to follow.
Like MLS, the NWSL is quarantining its players in a base camp for the duration of their stay in the month-long tournament. And though the list of U.S. World Cup stars who aren’t participating in the competition is long, the tournament has already had some memorable moments.
Before each of Saturday’s openers, players from both teams, wearing Black Lives Matters T-shirts, knelt on the pitch in the empty stadium as the national anthem played. That led to a tender moment when Chicago’s Casey Short, who is Black, was overcome by emotion and comforted by white teammate Julie Ertz. (You can watch the video here).
On Monday the NWSL revised its policy for the national anthem, which will continue to be played before the fan-less games, saying that players will be permitted to remain in the locker room during the playing if they wish.
As for the missing players, the league gave the women the option of skipping the tournament at full pay if they were concerned about the coronavirus and World Cup stars Megan Rapinoe, Christen Press and Tobin Heath took them up on the offer. Carli Lloyd and Mallory Pugh are out with injury and Orlando City’s Ashlyn Harris, Emily Krieger, Emily Sonnett and Brazilian teammate Marta are out after six Pride players and four staff members tested positive for COVID-19, forcing the team to pull out of the competition.
Alex Morgan, who also plays for Orlando City, was already sidelined after giving birth to her first child last month.
USL coming back with a regional approach
Teams in the second-tier USL Championship are back in full training for the first time since March and are expected to resume play July 11, although no one knows where or when.
The league – which includes the Orange County Soccer Club, Galaxy II and Landon Donovan’s San Diego Loyal – is expected to announce its schedule later this week. Teams will be divided into eight regional groups for a 16-game regular season followed by single-elimination playoffs. Five groups will consist of four teams and three will include five teams to account for the 35 franchises in the league.
OSCS (0-0-1), Galaxy II (1-0) and the Loyal (1-0-1) are all in Group B, along with Phoenix Rising and the Las Vegas Lights.
Games played before the season’s suspension in March will count in the standings. The league is hopeful some of its games will be played before fans although the number of spectators will be limited by social-distancing practices.
“It took a little bit to get used to, but we have all our own rooms, so that’s been a real positive. Everyone spends their time differently. It was a little bit intimidating at first but I think already guys are starting to feel more and more comfortable. We’ve had the opportunity to eat meals together, which has been great because I haven’t eaten with a group in a long time.”
Defender Tommy Thompson of the San Jose Earthquakes, the first team into MLS’ quarantine bubble at Disney’s Swan and Dolphin resort in Orlando.
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