Now it’s United’s turn to enter the bubble. Stocked with masks, sanitizer bottles and concerns, the delegation of about 40 boarded a chartered jet Friday at Washington Dulles International Airport for a stay of three to five weeks as part of the MLS is Back Tournament.
“It’s scary. In Florida, it’s bad,” United attacker Julian Gressel said of a state that, on Thursday, set a record with more than 10,000 new cases. “You trusted the bubble, and now to see more and more players test positive even a few days after they get there, it’s a bit scary and raises some question marks on my end, you know?”
For the most part, those already situated at the Swan and Dolphin Resort are healthy. In data posted by the league late Thursday, six of the 855 players, coaches, staff members, referees and league officials at the resort tested positive Wednesday and Thursday. That’s a positivity rate of 0.7 percent. Twelve teams were in the bubble.
Four of the six were players, none of whom were identified. According to Dallas-based 3rddegree.net, three FC Dallas players and one staff member were among the six, raising the tally on the club to nine players since it arrived in Florida last weekend. They have been recovering in an isolated part of the massive complex.
“The biggest issue by far is getting teams safely into the bubble,” said one person close to the league. “Incubation period makes that tough. The [MLS] protocol is strong. The one thing that is clear is that training in-market isn’t safe.”
With Dallas short on players, MLS might have to alter the match schedule.
Several weeks ago, three Dallas players tested positive and recovered. A Columbus Crew player also reportedly tested positive in Florida.
“Everybody is different in how they are viewing this,” United Coach Ben Olsen said. “I would be lying if there wasn’t some anxiety going into it.”
United has had some health scares. A few weeks ago, two players and two staff members tested positive, people close to the situation said. Upon further testing, one player and one staffer were deemed false positive.
The infected player and staff member, who have not been publicly identified, were isolated for two weeks with mild symptoms. At the time, the team announced the player’s positive test but not the staff member’s.
The player rejoined full workouts Thursday. Both were expected to travel to Florida.
Olsen said the entire roster would go, except attacker Paul Arriola, who is rehabilitating a preseason ACL injury.
All personnel are tested upon arrival at the league resort and must quarantine in their hotel rooms until results come back. It’s about a 12-hour wait, with food delivery arranged.
Everyone staying at the resort will undergo testing every other day for the first two weeks, MLS said, then “regularly” for the remainder of the tournament, including the day before every match.
No one is allowed to leave the resort grounds.
“The league has done a good job putting in safety protocols that will make everyone feel comfortable,” said New England Revolution Coach Bruce Arena, whose team arrived Thursday. “Obviously there has been this incident with the Dallas team, which is concerning. I’m sure there are reasons why it happened, but I think everyone is going to be safe.”
United’s first match is next Friday against Toronto FC at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, which will be closed to spectators. (The NBA also will use the complex for its return this month.)
Each MLS team will play three group matches, which will count toward the regular season standings. United also will face New England on July 16 and the Montreal Impact on July 21.
Sixteen teams will advance to the knockout stage, starting July 25 and ending Aug. 11. Those matches will not count toward the regular season, which was suspended in March after two weekends.
MLS is aiming to resume the regular season in home markets late this summer, presumably with few or no spectators. Multiple people said the league is aiming for an additional 18 to 22 matches per team, but they cautioned that such plans are in the early stages and the pandemic will dictate whether the season continues.
Arena, who coached United from 1996 to 1998, said he had heard rumors about MLS’s long-term goals, but “whatever plans there are today may change tomorrow. What we’ve seen now over the last four months, this is highly unpredictable.”
United resumed full team workouts June 15 at Audi Field. For a few weeks, players and staff were tested at a drive-through clinic in Arlington. This week, they were tested every other day on the stadium concourse before practice.
“The group is excited to have an opportunity to play real games,” Olsen said. “We’ve been waiting for this for quite a while. Going into the bubble, yeah, there is a little bit of anxiety, and everybody has a different intensity about the situation. But everybody is on board and ready to go.”
Leaving home during a pandemic was particularly hard for players with families. Goalkeeper Chris Seitz has five children. Olsen has three. Several others have kids. Gressel’s wife is due to give birth to their first child in late October.
“I’ve got to go and get through it,” he said. “If I have [the virus], I will be away from her and she wouldn’t get it. We’re trying to limit the risk to her.”
Gressel and Russell Canouse are United’s point men in the MLS Players Association. Team representatives have been in regular contact with union leadership, led by executive director Bob Foose, who is staying at the league hotel.
“We continue to monitor all that’s happening inside the bubble as well as the implications for players already here and players traveling in the coming days,” the MLSPA said.
Gressel, in his first season with D.C. after three with Atlanta United, said he has mixed feelings after hearing about the Dallas outbreak.
“We want to get down there. We want to get playing. We want to be in the bubble if it’s safe,” he said. “But if it’s not safe, we don’t want to go.”