Soccer newsletter: Resuming the MLS season at home stadiums is a risky proposition
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 a question, a serious one for which I have yet to hear an acceptable answer.
Five months ago, when every professional sports league in the U.S. suspended the season because of COVID-19, fewer than 1,325 Americans had tested posted. And just 38 had died. That’s for the whole country, combined, between the time the unique coronavirus was first detected in the U.S. on Jan. 20 and the suspension of play on March 12.
Today we’re averaging 38 deaths nearly every 95 minutes and more than 1,325 infections every 40 minutes.
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Yet leagues are insisting on returning to play in their local markets, allowing teams to travel to games and, in some cases, allowing spectators back into stadiums to watch. If it was too dangerous to play in March when the numbers were relatively low, why is it safe to play now when the numbers are exploding?
The only answer I can come up with is it’s not safe to play now.
In March, when we were just learning about COVID-19, everybody was acting cautiously and the decision to shut down was the right one. But now we know a lot more about what the disease can do, how it spreads and how to halt that spread and leagues are going ahead with their seasons anyway, ignoring the medical and scientific evidence that argues against that.
MLS is poised to join that movement Wednesday when Nashville plays FC Dallas in Frisco, Texas. Unless the league has a last-minute change of heart, as many as 5,110 supporters will be allowed in the 20,500-seat stadium, making MLS the first major professional sports league in the country to play before fans since March. (Some teams in the second-tier USL Championship have been playing before a limited number of fans in some markets with the approval of local authorities.)
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Here’s an MLS-COVID-19 timeline, courtesy of Soccer America:
Date.... 7-day U.S. average of coronvirus cases
March 12 (MLS shuts down).... 206 cases.
June 10 (MLS announces MLS is Back).... 21,658.
July 8 (MLS is Back starts).... 52,631
Aug. 8 (MLS announces restart in home markets).... 53,910.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver came closest to giving an acceptable answer for all this in the run-up to his league’s return to play.
“We are left with no choice but to learn to live with this virus,” he said in June. “No options are risk-free.”
He’s right. We can’t continue to cower under our beds; we have to try to slowly return to normal and we can’t do that without some risk. But society in general has totally botched the part about learning to live with the virus and, interestingly, sports has provided us with examples of how best to do that --- examples the leagues are now choosing to ignore.
The NBA, MLS, NWSL, WNBA and NHL all returned to play this summer in protective quarantine bubbles and that approach has proven overwhelmingly successful with none of the five leagues reporting a positive test in more than a month.
It was as if Dr. Anthony Fauci had become commissioner.
“We know that social distancing works, and quarantining is an extreme type of social distancing,” said Anne Rimoin, a professor of epidemiology at UCLA and director of the school’s Center for Global and Immigrant Health. “These are tried-and-true methods of keeping the virus at bay. This goes back to the idea that we have to do the hard work to suppress the virus if we want to go back to the business of living.
“Don’t sports remind us all the time? Do the hard work and then you reap the rewards.”
The public at large hasn’t done so well with that, turning preventive measures such as wearing – or not wearing -- facial coverings into political statements. And that is the environment MLS is about to enter, following the unsuccessful lead of Major League Baseball and the USL Championship.
Baseball opened its COVID-delayed season last month with teams playing before cardboard cutouts of fans into otherwise empty stadiums. But because the league insisted on playing in home markets, a protective quarantine was impossible and travel was necessary.
As a result at least 29 games have been postponed because of positive COVID-19 tests. The St. Louis Cardinals, who haven’t played since July 29 and won’t play until at least Aug. 15, have had 10 players and seven staffers test positive. They would have to play 55 games in 44 days to finish the season on time.
The Miami Marlins and Philadelphia Phillies have each had seven games postponed.
The USL Championship, whose teams also travel regionally, have had similar issues. When eight Galaxy II players tested positive for COVID-19 recently, it forced the team to postpone several games. And because of fears the infected players may have passed the virus on to players with the Sacramento Republic, the team the Galaxy II had just played, three other clubs had games canceled as well.
So, to review: bubbles work, traveling to games is risky and opening games to spectators only increases that risk. So why is MLS leaving its bubble after Tuesday’s MLS Is Back tournament final and resuming its season with each of its 26 teams playing at least 18 games -- nine at home, nine on the road, some with spectators presents?
I asked commissioner Don Garber that question during a conference call last weekend. And after justifiably taking a well-earned victory lap over the success over his league’s bubble event, he said he’s confident MLS can succeed outside the bubble too.
“We are confident in what protocols have been put into place,” he said, pointing to protocols that differ greatly from baseball’s in that no MLS road trips will involve overnight stays. “If it doesn’t work then we don’t go forward. I don’t think life can stop.
“I’m confident that we have a good plan. I’m confident in our players adhering to that plan. And if it doesn’t work well, then we’ll address it at that time.”
The MLS protocols also include COVID-19 tests every other day and the day before games. But unlike in Orlando, where players were sequestered in a hotel, they’re now free to go home, go to the store, go virtually anywhere they wish – which is also what the virus does.
Garber isn’t alone in thinking his approach will work though. After the conference call the league made Dr. Carlos del Rio, executive associate dean of the Emory School of Medicine, available to some reporters and he backed the commissioner.
“The major risk that I see is not what happens in the field but what happens outside the field,” he said. “MLS has worked fairly hard with the players to really educate them about the risks and the protocols and what they need to do.
“You really need the players to sort of pledge that they’re going to be using face masks, etc.. And if you do that, you’re going to be OK.”
But Del Rio stopped short of endorsing the return of spectators.
“The risk for the fans is there,” he said. “The biggest risk again may not be at the game. It may be what happens outside the game. What happens when people decide to go to the bathroom or go to the bar after the game.”
MLS Is Back
Portland 2, Philadelphia 1
Orlando City 3, Minnesota United 1
Portland vs. Orlando City, EPSN, ESPN Deportes, 5:30 p.m. PT
Rough road ahead
The resumption of the MLS regular season will consist of at least 18 games for each team divided into phases, with phase one beginning Wednesday when Nashville plays FC Dallas. Because both teams were withdrawn from the MLS Is Back tournament after multiple players tested positive for COVID-19, they each have three games to make up to match the league’s other 24 teams, all of whom have played five games that will count in the standings.
The 23-game regular season, the shortest ever, will conclude on Nov. 8 and 18 teams – up from 14 in 2019 – will make the playoffs, which will begin on Nov. 20. The MLS Cup is scheduled for Dec. 12, the latest date in league history.
The Galaxy and LAFC will resume their regular seasons against one another in Exposition Park on Aug. 22. They will meet again on Sept. 6 in Carson. In accordance with local health guidelines, fans will not be allowed at any games played at Banc of California Stadium or Dignity Health Sports Park.
For the Galaxy the schedule, arranged around regional matchups to limit travel, is daunting. The team is winless and has just two points through five games, the worst start in franchise history. And their six-game restart includes the home-and-away games with unbeaten LAFC, the reigning Supporters’ Shield winner and a quarterfinalist in Orlando; a home game with Seattle, the defending MLS Cup champion; a match in Portland against the Timbers, an MLS Is Back tournament finalist; and two games with San Jose, which won its group in Orlando and also reached the tournament quarterfinals.
None of the four teams the Galaxy will play has a losing record this season – they’re a combined 9-3-8 – and of the four only San Jose didn’t make the playoffs last season. On the bright side, however, the team is expected to get both captain Jonathan dos Santos and striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernández back from injury.
In addition to its two dates with the cross-town rival Galaxy, LAFC, which blitzed the Galaxy 6-2 in Orlando, will play Portland, Seattle and San Jose once apiece and make a two-hour charter flight to altitude to play struggling Real Salt Lake. LAFC will also see its captain, Carlos Vela, return.
Vela, the league’s reigning MVP and the holder of the all-time single-season scoring record, skipped the MLS Is Back tournament to care for his wife Saioa, who is pregnant. As a result Vela hasn’t played in a game since March 8.
Saturday, Aug. 22 at LAFC, 3 p.m.
Wednesday, Aug. 26 vs. Seattle, TBA
Saturday, Aug. 29 vs. San Jose, TBA
Wednesday, Sept. 2 at Portland, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, Sept. 6 vs. LAFC, TBA
Sunday, Sept. 13 at San Jose, 8 p.m.
Saturday, Aug. 22 vs. Galaxy, 3 p.m.
Wednesday, Aug. 26 at Real Salt Lake, 6:30 p.m.
Sunday, Aug. 30 at Seattle, 7 p.m.
Wednesday, Sept. 2 vs. San Jose, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, Sept. 6 at Galaxy, TBA.
Sunday, Sept. 13 vs. Portland, 8 p.m.
Role of a lifetime
Talk to enough baseball players and you’ll find that many secretly fantasize about being rock stars. So it shouldn’t surprise anyone that in England many artists dream about playing soccer.
“I think that’s true,” agreed Brett Goldstein, a British comic actor and writer with dozens of TV credits.
And if they don’t want that, their fathers certainly do. Which is why Goldstein, the son of a diehard Tottenham fan, couldn’t turn down the part of Roy Kent, the aging captain of the fictional Richmond Football Club, in “Ted Lasso,” a 10-episode comedy/drama that debuts on Apple TV+ on Aug. 14.
The role also led to one of Goldstein’s most memorable moments as an actor, when he led his fictional team onto the pitch before a huge crowd at Selhurst Park, the London home of Crystal Palace that doubled as Richmond’s ground for the TV show.
“It was genuinely one of the best times of my life,” he said. “Like, ‘oh this is it. I could die now.’ That was really cool.”
Goldstein, 40, grew up in the southern suburbs of London and said he had no choice but to be a Tottenham supporter as a child. “If my team was not Tottenham, I would have been kicked out,” he said. But it also proved to be a happy coincidence since Lasso, played by Jason Sudeikis, is an American football coach turned English soccer manager who had been hired by Tottenham when the character debuted in an NBC Sports promo seven years ago.
“It felt like a sign,” said Goldstein, who sent his father outtakes of each day’s shoot and kept him on speed dial in the writer’s room to handle any technical questions he couldn’t answer.
“I very much grew up around football and me getting this job is the most proud of me he’s ever been,” Goldstein said of his father, who is such a rabid supporter he timed the birth of his children around the Tottenham schedule so there was no chance his wife would go into labor during a match.
“Football is more a religion. I feel like he wanted me to be a footballer. Then I went into making stuff instead. Finally it’s like ‘that’s what I wanted’,” the actor said of his father’s reaction to his role.
In the series Goldstein plays a former Champions League winner who is trying to save Richmond from relegation in what will likely be his final season. The series was filmed in England last summer and fall, during the start of the Premier League season, and Goldstein said when many of the shoots ended, the actors would keep on playing.
“We played every day we were at those facilities,” he said
Sadly much of the game action that made it into the series won’t leave you thinking you’re watching a Premier League game – or even a Sunday recreational league. But at least the actors had fun pretending.
“I imagine it also kind of paid off in terms of bonding and making us look and feel more like a team,” Goldstein said.
Goldstein is not the only member of the “Ted Lasso” cast with deep soccer ties. Sudeikis and Brendan Hunt, who plays Lasso’s loyal assistant, Coach Beard, became hooked on the game while working with an improv troupe in Amsterdam. That eventually led them to create the character of Lasso, who earned a cult-like following after NBC Sports used the bumbling kind-hearted fish-out-of-water in promos for its Premier League coverage in 2013-14.
Hunt is now an Arsenal fan while Sudeikis continues to sample, but leans toward Manchester City and Liverpool because he likes the managers.
“You can say I’m a fair-weather fan,” Sudeikis said. “Every game I went to, I’d buy a kit for me, I bought one for my little boy. So whoever’s winning. I just love the sport.”
London-born actress Juno Temple, who plays Keeley Jones, a worker in the team’s PR department, also comes from a family with split loyalties since her father supported Arsenal and one brother cheered for Chelsea.
“That definitely created some interesting afternoons in the household when they played each other,” she said,
Juno’s middle brother was good enough at soccer to have been scouted by several professional clubs before a bad tackle wrecked his knee and ruined his career when he was 14, Temple said. He rebounded nicely, however, and will start work on a doctorate at Cambridge this fall.
USMNT starts planning ahead
Because of COVID-19, the men’s national team hasn’t played a game since Feb. 1 and doesn’t have one scheduled until next March, the longest break in more than three decades.
But CONCACAF’s recent announcement of a revised schedule for World Cup qualifying has at least given coach Gregg Berhalter some firm dates to plan around going into what will be a busy summer of 2021.
The Nations League semifinal with Honduras will be played in March, for example, with the eight-team final round of qualifying for Qatar to follow in June, just ahead of Tokyo Olympics and the Gold Cup.
“It’s going to be a balancing act,” Berhalter said in a Q and A distributed by U.S. Soccer. “For us it’s about first prioritizing World Cup qualifying. We need to have our top group in for these games and they are very important games starting in June.”
Mexico, which hasn’t played since November, has scheduled an October friendly with the Netherlands in Amsterdam and Berhalter says he’d like to play during one of the FIFA windows too. But only under the right circumstances.
“We don’t want to put any players at risk but we want to play in the October and November windows,” he said. “The first thing is figuring out opponents and locations. Given what the world has been confronted with the last few months, it goes without saying that the priority is doing it in a safe way.”
“Quitting is never an option. Think of all the challenges that MLS has had throughout its history. I know our owners and staffs never believed in quitting when we’re ahead. And we’ve not been ahead a whole lot, right? So I think in this case, we believe it’s important to get back to doing what it is that we’re able to do successfully in Orlando. And that’s get players on the field and start to engage with our fans.”
MLS commissioner Don Garber on the league’s decision to return to play in local markets, in some cases with fans in attendance
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