“We’re doing it because other clubs in our area have been doing it for a while, and if we don’t do it, our players will leave for other clubs,” said Anthony Benvenuto, president of the Oceanside Breakers. “That’s the last thing we want. But we also don’t want to put any kid in harm’s way.”
Those teams will continue to push the boundaries this weekend at the Desert Super Cup tournament in the Phoenix area, which is expected to draw more than 500 teams — including hundreds from out of state — even as Arizona and most of the country face a sharp increase in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations.
Arizona reported more than 4,500 new cases and 51 deaths Tuesday, and a report released last week by Arizona State University predicted the state’s hospital capacity could be reached as soon as Dec. 13 if there are no additional efforts to reduce transmission.
Amid the second major wave of infections in the state, the Desert Super Cup continues a schedule that has featured major youth sports gatherings throughout the fall. In Yuma, baseball tournaments are booming, and an estimated 800 youth teams competed in soccer, softball and lacrosse tournaments in Maricopa County last week alone. That has set off alarm bells for some health officials, who have maintained that youth sports have been directly linked to a recent spike in cases and are worried that events such as the Desert Super Cup could contribute to the spread of the virus even with health protocols in place.
“It’s incredibly bad timing. I can’t think of a worse time to do something like this. … What is so foolish about this is that we are now in exponential growth of the virus,” said Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association. “I don’t understand why city staff would approve something like that given the circumstances that we’re in. I can see them approving this in September or early October. But for the life of me, I just don’t understand what the hell they’re thinking.”
Ed Zuercher, Phoenix’s city manager, said Tuesday that the city approved the tournament to use two facilities in the city — games also will be held in nearby Mesa and Scottsdale — and that participants and spectators will have to follow strict guidelines; teams agreed to have an on-site compliance person work with city staffers to make sure protocols are being followed. When asked whether he was concerned by the number of teams traveling to the tournament from out of state — there are expected to be 460 such teams at the two fields in Phoenix alone, according to a memo obtained by the Arizona Republic — he said he expected people to follow the rules.
“The tournament officials are the responsible parties for this,” said Zuercher, who added that the city council will be discussing policies regarding the use of sports fields next week. “They have agreed to follow these rules; they have their teams agree to follow those rules. They put in place the protocols that we expect with field marshals, police officers and signage and hand sanitizer. They are going above and beyond this weekend, as are we.”
Desert Super Cup tournament director Michael Rocca did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Rick Kelsey, CEO of the Arizona Soccer Association, said his organization is sanctioning the event and has supported similar tournaments during the pandemic, including an event that hosted about 400 teams in the Phoenix area last week.
“We receive emails each week, both saying, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’ as well as saying, ‘Hey, thank you for doing what you’re doing.’ Because when you look at what our kids are losing out on, I think this provides some normalcy. I think that’s important, not only for our kids, but for all kids. We have the protocols in place,” Kelsey said.
While some California clubs have shifted to compete solely in Arizona — a popular San Diego tournament, Surf Cup, recently moved to Phoenix — Benvenuto said his club remains possibly the strictest in his county. All of his players are distanced during workouts, he said, and while only a fraction of the organization’s teams have been traveling to Arizona, they must quarantine for three days after returning.
But it is worth it for some parents to travel to events such as the Desert Super Cup, he said, because college scholarships and emotional support are on the line, even though many members of the organization are conflicted about it.
“We don’t all feel 100 percent comfortable about doing it,” Benvenuto said, “but it’s almost something that we have to do for our players.”
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