There have been a few serious wobbles, but for now, MLS remains upright.
The first large-scale U.S. team sport to resume since the novel coronavirus struck, MLS is the cavalry scout for the NBA (which also will compete on Disney grounds) and the NHL (which will be based in Toronto and Edmonton). Similar but smaller operations are underway in Utah (National Women’s Soccer League) and Florida’s Gulf Coast (WNBA).
After months of planning and precaution, MLS got off to a rough start this week when FC Dallas and Nashville SC were forced to withdraw because of virus outbreaks in their delegations. Dallas had 11 positive tests, Nashville nine.
The league also has reported isolated cases since teams began arriving more than two weeks ago. Infected individuals were removed from the team floor and placed in a separate ward of the hotel.
By and large, the bubble seems to be doing its job, though Kansas City on Friday announced a player had tested positive.
With all teams on site — the last arrived early this week — and the incubation period threatening to reveal additional infections, MLS’s plan will face its truest test.
The first of 51 matches was played Wednesday. The calendar, which required adjustments after the two dropouts, will continue through the Aug. 11 final at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Although it’s a tournament, the group stage counts toward the regular season standings, while the knockout rounds do not.
So teams are taking this very seriously. The group stage, at least. Aside from bonuses, pride and a trophy, the latter stage may become overshadowed by the longing to reunite with family back home.
MLS is tentatively planning to resume the regular season in home markets in late August with few or no spectators and limited travel. But with cases spiking in several states, this tournament might be it for 2020.
The withdrawal of two teams raised questions about the wisdom of employees regrouping in the workplace, one that includes common meals and travel.
MLS has taken extreme precautions. Everybody was tested every other day leading up to the trip. They were tested upon arrival and not allowed to leave their rooms (for about 12 hours) until they passed. They are tested every other day for the first two weeks of their stay and regularly afterward.
Still, two teams have been red-carded.
MLS is making an effort toward transparency by posting the results of testing every other day. In the wake of Nashville’s withdrawal, however, the numbers did not add up. Requests for additional details and context were ignored.
There also have been contradictions and questions about policy. After Miami’s Andres Reyes was released from a hospital (outside the bubble) following a throat injury Wednesday, he was isolated at the league hotel until he passed a coronavirus test.
The league’s health and safety protocol says a player hospitalized for non-virus issues doesn’t have to isolate unless he is symptomatic, tests positive or was in close contact with someone who tested positive. Miami officials said they did not believe Reyes was in contact with anyone who had been infected. Nonetheless, they sent him to isolation out of “an abundance of caution.”
MLS also has been opaque about testing and screening hotel workers, the biggest potential issue with the bubble. Before the tournament, the league and Disney referred questions to each other.
Reyes’s injury also highlighted a problem with medical response. As team personnel attended to a player apparently struggling to breathe, medics took several minutes to enter the field. Miami forward Juan Agudelo helped pull the stretcher.
Miami officials did not want to comment. MLS did not reply to a question about the slow response. “Definitely concerning,” one person close to the situation said.
The tournament is a massive undertaking. The league is using three fields for matches: two for night games to prevent overuse and one for the handful of day games. Because of the intense heat and humidity, matches kick off at 9 a.m., 8 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. Without spectators, each field is set up for TV and, more specifically, for making good on sponsorship deals and broadcast partnerships.
It’s a carefully crafted illusion. In person, there is not much to see, aside from field-length blue screens and temporary additional lighting. TV viewers, however, are blasted with more virtual ads than seen on a NASCAR driver’s racing suit.
Not all has gone smoothly. A live feed on Twitter of the Montreal-New England match Thursday (simulcast from the Spanish TV broadcast) cut off deep into second-half stoppage time.
The training fields are being put to use. Around 10 p.m. Thursday, as that match ended, at least two other teams were practicing nearby.
The sports center is continuously buzzing with activity as buses ferry teams in and out. All the while, workers setting up for NBA games at adjacent arenas are a constant presence. MLS banners mix with NBA branding — and Mickey Mouse placards.
Disney security and local police created a checkpoint at the entry of the complex. Credentialed reporters and photographers are not allowed to stay at the league hotel, and before attending matches, they must complete a health questionnaire and submit to temperature checks.
It is a complex and dangerous dance. For everyone’s sake, let’s hope they don’t fall.