Soccer newsletter: So, why are we playing again?
Hello, and welcome to another edition of the L.A. Times’ soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and we start this week, once again, with COVID-19.
When the nation awoke on the morning of March 12, 1,323 Americans had been diagnosed with the coronavirus and 38 people had died. The general concern and panic were so great, MLS and every other professional league in the country suspended play.
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The danger has grown exponentially since then.
Twice as many Americans test positive for COVID-19 every hour today. And we’re averaging nearly 15 times as many deaths per day now as we had total on March 12.
So if it was too risky to play then, why is it safe to come back now?
MLS, despite having one team expelled and 13 players test positive inside its quarantine bubble in Orlando, Fla., is returning to play Wednesday when it kicks off the MLS Is Back Tournament at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports. The NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball are right behind, planning their own restarts later this month.
Any honest answer as to why that’s happening would probably have to start with a dollar sign. Without games, there’s no TV income, sponsorships shrink, jersey sales go down, and even hardcore fans begin to find other things to spend their money on. Players still get paid, of course, but the revenue streams that once supported those salaries have dried up.
It’s not a sustainable business model. But then neither is playing children’s games in the middle of a deadly — and growing — global pandemic.
When the leagues suspended play in March, it was the right decision, one made with an abundance of caution. And no one thought it would amount to anything more than a short delay. MLS’ original training moratorium was just a week long, for instance, and Major League Baseball expected its opening day would be delayed just two weeks.
Four months later, neither league has played a game.
In Europe, countries were able to flatten the COVID-19 curve and return to the field. The German Bundesliga has already finished its season, and soccer leagues in Spain and England have been back for weeks. But in the U.S., where the virus continues to rage, only the NWSL has managed to start play.
So now, in the face of mounting deficits — to say nothing of rising infection rates — the leagues that exercised caution four months are now throwing that same caution to the wind.
“The uncertainty as to when we can return [in home markets], how many games we’ll have, what we’ll be able to deliver to our media partners and to our national and corporate partners, have forced us to come up with a plan that at least allows us to get back in front of our fans,” said MLS commissioner Don Garber, who estimated the pandemic could cost the league as much as $1 billion. “Other leagues, their fan bases are deeply mature and have been around for generations. Our absence created a void in the lives [of MLS fans].
“It was really crucial for us to get back. It was about … ensuring that at least we would have a tournament to be able to deliver that to fans and to our partners and capture some portion of revenue.”
Even if it means putting its players at risk.
In addition to those who have tested positive, several teams delayed their planned arrival in Orlando — some by days — either because members of their traveling delegation tested positive at home or simply out of fear of flying to Florida, the nation’s hottest coronavirus hotspot.
At least 10 FC Dallas players have tested positive since arriving in Orlando on June 27, forcing the league to remove the team from the competition Monday. At least five Nashville players are also believed to have failed tests, although that hasn’t been confirmed by the league. The team hasn’t trained in a week and the players were confined to their hotel rooms Monday, which could force MLS to postpone their first game scheduled for Wednesday.
The NWSL hadn’t started its season when the COVID crisis hit, so, technically, MLS will be the first league in the U.S. to return to play. But it won’t be alone for long.
NBA players are expected to arrive in Orlando on Tuesday to prepare for their return-to-play event later this month. Baseball has begun its second spring training of the year — neither of which actually took place in the spring — ahead of its season opener in less than three weeks.
NHL teams, meanwhile, will launch two-week training camps this weekend with the hope of resuming play at the end of the month.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver, whose league was the first to shut down, offered an explanation as to why his league is coming back. The virus isn’t going away until a vaccine is found, he said, so we can either hide from it or make the best of the situation.
“We know that COVID-19 will be with us for the foreseeable future,” Silver said on a conference call with league officials, according to ESPN. “We are left with no choice but to learn to live with this virus. No options are risk-free right now.”
But even Silver conceded there are limits.
“Never full steam ahead no matter what,” he said last week in an appearance on TIME 100 Talks. “One thing we are learning about this virus is much [is] unpredictable. If there were something to change that was outside of the scope of what we are playing for, certainly we would revisit our plans.”
How many failed tests would be necessary for him to suspend the season a second time, Silver wouldn’t say.
“We haven’t put a precise number on it, but if we were to see a large number of cases and see spread in our community, that would of course be a cause to stop as well,” he said.
Garber, already under pressure to cancel his tournament in light of the positive COVID tests inside the league’s punctured protective bubble, tried to thread that same needle, saying there’s a rate of infection MLS won’t tolerate. But he, too, failed to say what that number is.
Outside the bubble, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, predicted in a Senate hearing last week that COVID infections in the U.S. will soon top 100,000 a day. Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Diseases Research and Policy, said that milestone could be reached before the MLS tournament finishes its knockout stage at the end of the month.
So, why are we playing again?
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All together now
LAFC and the Galaxy both checked into the MLS quarantine at Disney’s Swan and Dolphin resort Monday evening, meaning all the competing teams are finally together in Orlando. However, both teams arrived missing some big pieces.
LAFC left captain Carlos Vela, the league’s reigning MVP, home so he could care for his pregnant wife Saioa and the couple’s 3-year-old son Romeo. MLS gave players the opportunity to skip the five-week tournament for health or family reasons.
The Galaxy is also missing its captain, midfielder Jonathan dos Santos, who last week underwent surgery for a sports hernia. Dos Santos missed all but 45 minutes of the team’s first two games with a groin issue and won’t be able to resume training until the Galaxy returns from Orlando.
Vela, who broke the MLS scoring record last year when his 34 goals led LAFC to the best regular-season record in league history, will likely be replaced Adama Diomande and Bradley Wright-Phillips, a two-time MLS scoring champion. Neither played in the team’s first two games because of injury.
The absence of Dos Santos, the midfield motor who makes the Galaxy go, could force coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto to tweak his team’s offensive approach, with veteran Perry Kitchen probably getting some extra playing time.
Both LAFC and the Galaxy play their first games in the tournament July 13, with LAFC facing the Houston Dynamo and the Galaxy taking on the Portland Timbers.
The tournament, to be played entirely behind closed doors, will begin with each team playing three group-play games. The teams have been arranged in six groups, five consisting of four teams and one of five teams now that Dallas is gone. The top two finishers in each group, plus the four best third-place teams, will advance to the single-elimination knockout stages.
On Aug. 11, two survivors will meet in the tournament final with $1.1 million in prize money and a berth in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions League on the line.
Results of the group-play games will count in the standings when MLS resumes its regular season in each team’s home market later this summer. When the season was suspended two weeks into the 34-game schedule, LAFC was unbeaten at 1-0-1, while the Galaxy (0-1-1) was winless.
Teams will be allowed a game-day roster of 23 players in the tournament, five over the usual limit, and will be permitted to make five substitutions per match, two more than normal. The video assistant referee will be used to confirm or correct disputed calls.
Players, staff and game officials — some 1,300 people in all — will be quarantined in Disney’s Swan and Dolphin resort for the length of their participation in the competition. Everyone going into the bubble was tested for COVID-19 twice before leaving their home market and again upon arrival at the hotel. They will be tested again every other day for the first two weeks and will be required to wear a facial covering and observe social distance when outside their hotel room.
“It’s obviously a day-by-day analysis if this is going in a direction that is the best environment for everybody. I actually trust every safety measure and every sanitary protocol and procedure that they put in place,” Galaxy general manager Dennis te Kloese said. “It will come [down] to each and every individual that goes there to stay with the protocol to be very respectful towards every safety measure that’s been taken. We reiterated to the players that it’s very, very important.”
Te Kloese, who has long urged caution in MLS’ return to play, was hopeful — but not certain — the tournament will continue through to the final.
“At the moment, I think everybody’s looking at where it goes,” he said. “We need to control what we can control, which is take care of our own safety with face masks, with washing your hands, with safe distancing; with following the protocols for our team. That is what we can control: the safety and health of our players, our staff, our employees.
“Anything that is out of our control, we have to evaluate, and internally we’ll assess this.”
Challenges and surprises await
MLS has never attempted a tournament like the one it’s starting this week, and for LAFC coach Bob Bradley that means there will be some unique challenges, chief among them the boredom that is sure to set in during several long weeks in quarantine.
“All teams are going to have to find ways to keep players engaged, keep them focused, find the right balance of work but also find ways to that they have outlets,” he said.
“Everyone knows it’s a different kind of situation. And it’s been mentioned over and over that supporting players on the mental side is going to be really important to keep guys fresh. We’ll try to find the right way, the right approach every day as we go through the tournament.”
The physical side will also be important, of course, especially since the 26 teams arrived in Florida with different fitness levels. That’s largely a result of the restrictions different communities enacted to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared sports an essential industry in May, allowing Orlando City and Inter Miami to begin individual training May 6. A month later, Miami became the third team cleared to begin full-team workouts, following Atlanta United and Sporting Kansas City.
The San Jose Earthquakes, meanwhile, couldn’t do anything at all until mid-June.
Most teams fell somewhere between those two extremes, which is why Gavin Benjafield, LAFC’s performance director, expects some unpredictable results.
“Teams that have a group of players that are able to perform under this stressful environment — it may not necessarily be the most technically gifted team or [have] high-ranking performances from previous season — if they can pull together and not focus on all the negatives, there could be some surprises in the tournament,” he said.
“There’s some teams that just got a group of guys that have gone, ‘Hey, our focus is 100% on the football.’ Yes, there’s 1,000 questions that they have that we can’t get answers to. [But] if they can take their eyes off that and just focus on football, I think we are in for many a surprise.”
MLS teams had just finished a six-week preseason training camp and had played two league games when the season was halted in March. Only two teams — Atlanta and Kansas City — have had a month of full-squad practices heading into the restart.
That leaves two dozen teams physically unprepared to play multiple games a week, and Benjafield says the result of that will be numerous soft-tissues injuries and poor play, the same things that distracted from the Bundesliga’s restart in May.
Those dangers are compounded for teams like San Jose, which has had less than two weeks of organized workouts in 3½ months before leaving for Orlando.
“They’ve got a shorter runway to get their jet up off the ground and they’re going to have to push harder and, in my opinion, are at great risk of injury,” Benjafield said. “The Bundesliga was really tough to watch because the high-intensity efforts weren’t there. The speed of the game was down.
“There are a couple of teams that may be able to use this as a competitive advantage.”
Es ist vorbei
Speaking of the Bundesliga, the German league was the second in the world to return from the coronavirus shutdown, following Korea’s K League. It was also among the first to finish its season, wrapping up play 10 days ago.
The league didn’t have far to go when it restarted in mid-May, needing just nine match days to finish the schedule. And in doing so, it created the template much of the rest of the world has followed in terms of COVID-19 protocol, testing and safety procedures.
However, little changed after the restart, with just one of the top eight teams — Schalke 04, which was winless in its nine games — changing places between the March pause and the season’s conclusion in June. Along the way, Bayern Munich won its eighth consecutive title and its leader, Robert Lewandowski, won the scoring title for a third straight time.
The team added a domestic cup to its trophy case last weekend, beating Bayer Leverkusen 4-2 behind two more goals from Lewandowski, giving him a career-best 51 for club and country this season.
If all that was expected from Bayern, there were a few surprises, with Thomas Mueller breaking the league record with 21 assists and Canadian teenager Alphonso Davies emerging as perhaps the league’s most dynamic left back, one whose speed can change the direction of games in heartbeat.
“He’s a player with a lot of heart and a lot of power. Extreme power,” Mueller said. “Sometimes maybe he is not in the best position on the field, but then meep, meep, meep, meep, the FC Bayern roadrunner comes ahead and steals the ball.”
Davies said he had no choice but to improve after making the jump from MLS to the Bundesliga.
“Playing with these guys day in, day out, training with them each and every day, has made me a better player and made me a better person,” said Davies, who was born to Liberian parents in a refugee camp in Ghana before coming to Canada with his family when he was 5. “These players are very respectful to one another, respectful to everyone they meet. Each and every day I feel myself getting better and better.”
Davies got his start in the Vancouver Whitecaps academy when he was 14, then made his first-team debut at 15 in 2016. Two years later he moved to Bayern on an MLS-record $13.5-million transfer.
“MLS gave me a good foundation,” he told me in a phone call from Munich earlier this year. “For example, Bastian Schweinsteiger, he played against me. Seeing him and seeing Ibra, all these players play the game live, it was it was a good opportunity for me.
“Obviously, there’s a different quality of football. But yes, it gave me a head start.”
Germany has become a destination for several young North Americans, with Christian Pulisic, Josh Sargent, Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Gio Reyna, Uly Llanez and Zack Steffen among those who have found success in the Bundesliga in recent years.
“It’s a good league for young players. And they really give young players opportunity to be themselves, to play, to express themselves,” Davies said. “Once you’re here, the work starts. You have to be detailed in everything you do.
“Once I came here, I saw the quality of the players, even the young players, the drive everyone described. That was eye-opening for me. So each and every day was it was a battle. It was fighting for your spot, fighting to be to fit, for the coach to take you. You have to show that you’re able to play with these guys, are you willing to fight for your spot.”
“To be able to make it here is one thing,” he added. “But to be able to play each week is another is another milestone.”
A milestone Davies achieved this season.
“I would like nothing more than to be with my teammates in Orlando. However it is in the best interest of the health of my family to stay home and be with my wife during what is a risky pregnancy.”
LAFC captain Carlos Vela, explaining why he will not play in the MLS Is Back tournament in Florida
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