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Soccer newsletter: Greetings from the MLS bubble

Portland Timbers midfielder Diego Valeri, left, and LA Galaxy defender Perry Kitchen in an MLS game Monday
Portland Timbers midfielder Diego Valeri, left, and LA Galaxy defender Perry Kitchen compete for the ball during the second half of an MLS soccer match Monday in Florida.
(Phelan M. Ebenhack / Associated Press)

Hello and welcome to the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and we’re coming to you this week from just outside Major League Soccer’s protective quarantine bubble in Orlando, Fla.

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that quarantine was designed to keep out, managed to find its way inside the bubble just four days after players began arriving at Disney’s Swan and Dolphin resort, resulting in the withdrawal of two teams — FC Dallas and Nashville SC — before the MLS Is Back tournament was even two days old.

And the coronavirus has continued to spread with at least 22 players from four teams having confirmed positive tests. We’ll delve into that topic in depth in a moment. But we start this week with Monday’s tournament games at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports, the first the Galaxy and LAFC have played since early March.

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Both teams were missing their star players, both were trying to shake off four months of rust, and both entered the restart heading in different directions — LAFC unbeaten after two games and the Galaxy winless.

That last thing didn’t change, with LAFC (1-0-2) rallying from a two-goal halftime deficit to salvage a point in a 3-3 tie with the Houston Dynamo and the Galaxy (0-2-1) wasting Javier “Chicharito” Hernández’s first goal of the season in a 2-1 loss to the Portland Timbers.

LAFC was dominant in its game despite the score, controlling the pace and possession, outshooting Houston 23-9, holding the ball for more than an hour and completing more than twice as many passes as Houston attempted. But defensive mistakes allowed Houston to stay in the game, with Memo Rodriguez scoring twice in the first 30 minutes and Alberth Elis adding another goal in first-half stoppage time to give Houston a 3-1 lead at the break.

“We’re not happy when we have games where we make three or four bad decisions, bad plays, and every ball turns out in the net,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley said. “But this is part of the process. If you want to be a team that plays up the field, then you have to have the courage to defend high. Your defenders have to be able to cover space behind.”

That didn’t happen Monday.

But the absence of captain Carlos Vela, the reigning league MVP who skipped the tournament to stay home with his pregnant wife, created opportunities for a veteran to start and a couple of players usually hidden in his shadow to shine. And Bradley Wright-Phillips, Diego Rossi and Brian Rodriguez made the most of that with Wright-Phillips scoring for the first time in more than a year, Rossi assisting on LAFC’s first goal and scoring the second, while Rodriguez’s first MLS goal in the 69th minute gave LAFC the tie.

“It was like a kid going back to school,” said Wright-Phillips, a two-time MLS scoring champion who made his LAFC debut in Vela’s place. “I was happy I got the start and also happy to get some match fitness. I haven’t played for a while. It was good. I enjoyed it.”

He especially enjoyed getting LAFC on the board in the 19th minute, lunging at a low Rossi cross and poking it in.

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Rossi added a goal to that assist early in the second half before Rodriguez brought LAFC all the way back with the game-tying goal with 21 minutes to play.

“I was looking for that goal since I got here. It came today and it makes me happy,” said Rodriguez, 20, who joined LAFC 11 months ago. “It gives me confidence to keep growing and getting better.”

And so does his team, which was coming off a 126-day break, the longest in franchise history. (The team’s first offseason break lasted just 121 days.)

“It was good to get back on the field,” Bradley said. “I was very pleased that there were some moments of good football. Our ideas continue to go in a good direction. I really liked in the second half that we were able to make little passes off the edge of the defense and get Brian and Diego into about positions. I thought we were able to push the game in the second half, and that’s a credit to the work the guys have put in.”

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The Galaxy also got some outstanding performances from a couple of young players, with teenager Cameron Dunbar playing an inspired 66 minutes in his MLS debut while Gordon Wild, playing in his first MLS game, came off the bench to assist on Hernandez’s goal and score one of his own, although that goal was disallowed after the officials consulted a video replay.

“I thought he was excellent tonight,” veteran Perry Kitchen said of the 17-year-old Dunbar. “I was not surprised. He’s a really special talent.”

So is Hernández, Mexico’s all-time leading scorer, who didn’t have a shot on goal in his first two MLS games. He had plenty of opportunities Monday but rolled a first-half penalty shot right at Portland goalkeeper Steve Clark, then sent two wide-open looks over the crossbar early in the second half.

“Sometimes that can happen,” he said. “You can have 10 chances, miss nine and score one. Some games you have one chance and you score. It’s not the greatest to score your first goal with a loss like this one. And you miss a penalty.

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“I told the lads this one is on me.”

Hernández did finally get on the scoresheet with two minutes left in regulation, taking a cross from Wild, then spinning and burying a right-footed shot from the top of the six-yard box. But that was all the Galaxy would get.

“The mood in the locker room after the game is one of disappointment,” veteran Sacha Kljestan said. “We felt we had them on the ropes for the last few minutes of the game and we were really pushing. The other sentiment in the locker room is that we stick together and support each other.

“We’re going to learn from our mistakes. We feel like a real team, we feel like we’re going to get stronger as this tournament and season goes on.”

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Their next chance comes Saturday against unbeaten LAFC.

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Bubble trouble

With the MLS tournament ending its first week of competition Tuesday, the focus has moved slightly from the porous COVID-19 bubble to the action on the field — much to the relief of Commissioner Don Garber. But if the anxiety about the potential spread of the coronavirus in the quarantine has eased, it hasn’t gone away.

“The league has done the best that they can,” Galaxy midfielder Sebastian Lletget said. “But as far as our confidence coming here, it’s a little scary when you start hearing those cases here and stuff like that.”

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Added LAFC midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye, whose team was the last to arrive in Orlando: “No one could have prepared us for the situation. But we’re trying to keep a positive attitude about it. Most of the guys, we just stay in our rooms for the majority of the day until we have to go for a meal or go out for training. Training is like the real joy for us. That’s really when we’re around everyone.

“Other than that we’re trying to be safe with the safety protocols and staying six feet away. Your room is the only place you don’t have to wear a mask. I’m sure a lot of people would rather not wear a mask so they end up just staying in the room. We’re just trying to get through this in the best way possible.”

Four days after players began arriving at the Disney resort — where the MLS delegation is being housed under a heavy security presence — two players from FC Dallas tested positive. That number eventually swelled to 10 infected players, forcing MLS to dismiss the team from the competition.

Less than a week later, Nashville SC, which had its departure from Tennessee delayed a day by testing concerns, showed up only to see its players confined to their rooms after five of them tested positive. When that number grew to nine, Nashville’s opener, scheduled as the second game of the tournament’s opening-night doubleheader, was postponed. A day later the team was withdrawn from the tournament.

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Through the first nine games of the competition, three games were either postponed or canceled outright due to players testing positive.

“Until we have a vaccine, I think there are going to be challenges with this,” FC Dallas President Dan Hunt said. “This is kind of the reality of what has happened to us in 2020. I think you will see stopping and starting in some sports.”

Through the end of the tournament’s first week, 22 players from four clubs had confirmed positive tests. The problem isn’t the MLS’ protocols, ones devised with the help of health professionals and infectious disease specialists. If anything, the protocols appear robust.

But the coronavirus has proved even stronger.

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MLS required players and staff to be tested at least twice before they boarded their charter flight to Orlando, then once more immediately upon arrival at the hotel. In the hotel, players and staff were required to wear masks, follow social-distancing rules and were also re-tested every other day.

Everyone in the MLS delegation also received an emailed health questionnaire every morning and had their temperature checked repeatedly each day.

Yet at least four teams were able to bring the virus into the bubble and a handful of others had either inconclusive tests or positive results that later proved to be negative. One problem seems to be the size of that bubble, which has been stretched too thin to protect the 1,300 people in the MLS delegation.

“It’s just too large for it to succeed,” said Armand Dorian, chief medical officer at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital. “When you add on top of this where we are currently in the United States, this thing is on the rise. The potential for exposure is just only growing, it’s not decreasing.”

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Dr. Anne W. Rimoin, a professor of epidemiology at UCLA and director of the school’s Center for Global and Immigrant Health, agrees.

“Keeping this virus at bay, even with elaborate planning, can be difficult,” she said. ”It hinges on perfect behavior and testing, both of which are hard to achieve. The tests that are currently available are imperfect and do not guarantee that someone who tests negative is actually negative. They are designed to identify people who are acutely infected and are less accurate at identifying asymptomatic individuals or people who have a very low level of virus at the earliest stages of infection.

“In fact, the probability of testing negative in the first few days of infection is extremely high. Only around days five to seven [days] does a test have a reasonable chance of identifying someone as infected.”

That means the second week of the tournament could be even more important for MLS in terms of beating the virus.

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According to a study by the American College of Cardiology, it can take up to 14 days for people exposed to COVID-19 to exhibit symptoms. More than half the 24 teams remaining in the MLS tournament won’t hit the end of that incubation period until later this week, meaning more positive cases are possible.

There also remains the possibility of the virus entering from the outside. Although members of the MLS delegation are only allowed outside the bubble for games and training sessions, members of the large hotel staff required to service 1,300 people come and go every day.

“It’s hard to contain this virus given the nature of how it is spread and the rate of transmission that is happening in the state of Florida,” Rimoin said. “Real quarantine should mean that no one is coming in or out of the bubble.”

NWSL has so far proved to be up to its Challenge

While MLS is keeping a close eye on the coronavirus inside its Orlando quarantine, the NWSL completed the 16-day group-play stage of its Challenge Cup tournament in Utah on Monday without anyone testing positive, according to league spokesman Mark Jones.

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That’s not to say the competition, which enters the knockout stage Friday, hasn’t been affected by the virus. The Orlando Pride was forced to withdraw from the event three days before the team was scheduled to fly to Utah when six players and four staff members tested positive after a celebratory night on the town, leaving just eight teams in the tournament.

Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University, said the team’s decision not to go to Utah may have helped save the tournament.

“I thought it was a very responsible decision,” he said. “Obviously I wish their players hadn’t gone out to the bar like they did. I think that was an unwise decision. But you know people make mistakes and the team did what they needed to do to rectify it. I respect them for that.”

The players and staffs of the remaining teams are staying in apartments that are part of the academy complex of Real Salt Lake, the MLS sister club of the NWSL’s Utah Royals, as well as two nearby hotels used exclusively by the league. They are subject to a rigorous testing protocol and games are being played without fans at the 5,000-seat Zions Bank Stadium, home to the USL’s Real Monarchs and part of Real Salt Lake’s academy and training complex.

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The league said there is no interaction between players on different teams, apart from the games, whereas MLS players frequently run into one another since they are sharing the same hotel. And with just eight teams, the NWSL has fewer than 300 people inside its bubble; MLS has more than four times that many to protect.

The NWSL is probably benefitting as well from its decision to place the tournament in Utah, which has had slightly more confirmed COVID-19 cases in four months than Florida has had in the past two days.

None of that detracts from the marvelous job the league did in getting its Challenge Cup off the ground. When the tournament kicked off June 27, NWSL became the first professional sports league in the U.S. to hold a competitive game since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of the country in early March.

Because the league wasn’t scheduled to kick off until April 18, it was not technically returning to play. But having some sort of an NWSL season, even if it was only an abbreviated tournament, was vital to keeping women’s soccer from completely squandering the momentum it gained from last summer’s hugely successful Women’s World Cup.

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The tournament did not get buy-in from everyone, though. U.S. national team stars Megan Rapinoe, Christen Press and Tobin Heath stayed away over fears of the coronavirus. Also missing is two-time world player of the year Carli Lloyd, who is injured; national team captain Alex Morgan, who gave birth to her first child in May; and Brazilian standout Marta, who withdrew from the tournament when her Pride teammates did.

But even without some of the brightest stars in the NWSL universe, the competition has been compelling, with only the two-time defending champion North Carolina Courage surviving group play unbeaten. The tournament has been so even, in fact, five of the 16 first-round games ended in draws and only two teams — North Carolina and Washington — advance to the knockout stage with more than one win.

Much of the credit for the so-far-successful tournament goes to freshman Commissioner Lisa Baird, who didn’t start in that job until March 10, two days before professional sports in the U.S. and Canada were suspended.

Her first task was uniting the league and its players’ union over a plan to hold a single-site tournament in place of a normal regular season. And Baird got that done before any other league commissioner, announcing plans for the NWSL’s Challenge Cup on May 27.

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Key to that agreement was a provision guaranteeing players they would be paid for a full season, at pre-pandemic levels, whether they played in the tournament or not.

“That was huge. And something we’re really proud of,” said Portland Thorns defender Emily Menges, a member of the union’s executive board. “We will end up being probably only one of the leagues in the world that has been able to do that for this season. It is important for our players to have some kind of financial stability, especially since we’re being asked to kind of consolidate.”

Menges said Baird earned the players’ trust by listening to their concerns on a wide range of topics, from pay to health and safety issues.

“This is really the most impressed I’ve ever been with this league on all of the steps they’ve taken,” she said. “They’ve gone through every single possible situation and they’ve given all the players a chance to answer every single question that we have.”

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The trust Baird has established has carried over to the tournament.

“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 Rodriguez. “Creating that communication helped. I do trust the protocols. I trust the process.”

Quotebook

“I just think it’s a little bit stupid, if I’m being honest. I just think we could have waited like the rest of the leagues and you train until you’re able to play. And that’s it. You’ve taken us all to a place now in a bubble where you gotta stay in your room, away from your families. You know, some people got some real, some real life issues, you know, to deal with and you just got to go and leave your family for how long, you know, but I guess money talks, my friend.”

Bradley Wright-Phillips, speaking on “The Sports Bubble” podcast before LAFC’s departure for the MLS Is Back Tournament in Florida.

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Until next time...

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