Galaxy return to practice, but will MLS games be played in Orlando?
Galaxy midfielder Sacha Kljestan worked out at Dignity Health Sports Park on Thursday for the first time since Major League Soccer’s season was suspended by the COVID-19 pandemic two months ago. Although he barely did enough to break a sweat during the hour he spent confined to a corner of the practice field, it might have been one of the more memorable workouts of his 11-year MLS career.
“It was really nice to get out there and do a little workout again on a really nice grass field,” he said. “Just to see the stadium again, even if I was just looking at it from the outside. Just to return to some sort of normalcy, it seemed like a step in the right direction as hopefully we push towards playing a season.”
Exactly what kind of a season that would be, and where it would be played, are subjects everyone in MLS is discussing but nobody is revealing. Players, team executives and league officials have all refused to speak publicly about how and when MLS might resume play. Privately, however, a blueprint has emerged in the last week.
The outline of the plan has the 26 MLS teams taking charter flights to Orlando, Fla., where they would be quarantined at a sprawling Disney resort. After a three-week mini training camp, games — likely in a tournament format — would be played behind closed doors at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, a 255-acre multi-sports facility a short drive away.
For the first time since Major League Soccer shut down in March because of the coronavirus, LAFC players took part in a league-sanctioned workout.
If the danger posed by the unique coronavirus recedes, teams would return to their home markets in August with the hope of finishing the season in December or perhaps early in 2021.
Florida’s Republican governor Ron DeSantis, speaking at a press conference Wednesday, said he’s ready to welcome the league.
“There’s been reports that Major League Soccer may want to have their season in Orlando,” he said. “Do it. We want to have you here.”
DeSantis has declared pro sports an essential business in Florida, where UFC staged two cards from an empty arena in Jacksonville in the last week. Another is planned for Saturday.
The NBA also reportedly is talking about resuming its season in Orlando, using some of the same Disney facilities MLS has been considering.
The broad contours of the MLS proposal has more questions than answers, however, beginning with the expected start date of June 1, a target now considered overly ambitious. There are also disagreements as to how many people will be permitted inside the strictly guarded quarantine bubble, how many times a week they would be tested, where those tests would come from and what would happen if someone tested positive for COVID-19.
“Too many loose ends,” one Western Conference general manager said. “Not an easy task to secure safety for 1,000-plus people in one complex.”
Until those loose ends are tied up, the MLS players association is unlikely to agree to a plan that currently has split the union membership, with some favoring a quick return to play while others question the danger or are opposed to being separated from family for an extended period.
“It’s just nothing I’m ready to comment on publicly as we’re trying to do some work behind the scenes,” said Kljestan, who has been involved in the union’s internal discussions. “I think we will have a say. I just don’t want to comment more than that at this point.”
Added teammate Nick DePuy: “I don’t think I can say anything about it right now. I honestly don’t know enough about it. I know they’re talking about it.”
Soccer referee Katja Koroleva is on the frontline in battle against COVID-19, as a physician assistant.
Anton Walkes, a defender who has played 22 games in parts of two seasons for Atlanta United, mirrored the concerns of many in a video conference call with reporters.
“The safety of everyone is first and foremost,” said Walkes, who also worried about how players would handle the mental strain of being quarantined for 10 or more weeks.
Moving everyone to a neutral site, however, might be the only way for a league with teams in 17 states, three Canadian provinces and the District of Columbia to resume its season.
Last week the league told teams they could open training facilities for players to do individual workouts as long as observed strict social-distancing guidelines and adhered to local health regulations; at least nine teams have yet to receive government permission.
LAFC players worked out last week at Cal State Los Angeles believing — mistakenly — they had been cleared by Los Angeles County. Meanwhile, the Galaxy, who train less than 18 miles away in Carson, waited for a green light from Los Angeles County.
In Florida, the playing field would be even.
“That is probably correct,” said Bruce Arena, coach of the New England Revolution, one of the teams whose players have been blocked from working out.