July 1st 2020 should have marked one of the most anticipated Portland Timbers games of the season. Former coach Caleb Porter was coming to town as head coach of the Columbus Crew, and it should have been a raucous affair. We should all have been jumping and clapping and singing for victory.
Of course, that didn’t happen. The global COVID-19 pandemic hit, and MLS has been shut down since early March. Our lives have currently been consumed with focusing on adapting to the new normal and keeping ourselves and our communities healthy, all while devoid of any kind of live sports to consume.
That is, until recently. The German Bundesliga restarted back in May, officially marking the return of a major soccer league to live play. The English Premier League followed soon thereafter. And just last week, the NWSL carried the flag as the first American professional sports league to return to play with the NWSL Challenge Cup, hosted in Utah. Slowly but surely, we have begun to be able to watch our favorite soccer teams play again.
So when news first dropped of the “MLS Is Back” Tournament, my initial reaction was one of excitement. Finally, we would be able to watch the Timbers again! In a live game! Who cares if it’s essentially a glorified pre-season tournament with no fans played on backyard pitches in sweltering Florida heat- MLS is back baby!
But after that initial wave of excitement passed, I started to look at the details of the construction of the “bubble” in Orlando as they trickled out. No family members allowed. Players and staff being in Orlando for potentially up to five weeks. Hotel staff being free to come and go from their homes while interacting with players. Playing a large number of games in a short period of time, in heat. The whole tournament situation sounded tenuous at best.
And then, the reported number of cases of COVID-19 in Florida began to rise. I saw daily reports of the numbers going higher, higher, and higher. The state chosen to house all MLS players and host the tournament rapidly became the epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States.
Florida reports a record 10,109 new cases of COVID-19 Thursday. In June, infections rose by 168% and Florida, with 21 million residents, has reported more new daily cases than any European country had at the height of their outbreaks, according to Reuters— Kevin Baxter (@kbaxter11) July 2, 2020
The proverbial last straw for me was when teams started reporting to Orlando, and then there were reports of MLS players testing positive once they were already inside the bubble.
More positives for Dallas...— Sam Stejskal (@samstejskal) July 2, 2020
Sources tell me, @jeffrueter and @PaulTenorio that three FCD players and a coach tested positive for COVID-19 on Wednesday. The club has now had nine players and one coach test positive since arriving in Orlando on Saturday. https://t.co/UcvNwyLt8O
The whole point of keeping players isolated in a bubble is so that it’s contained and theoretically protected from the outside. But if the bubble is already contaminated… then it isn’t really a bubble anymore.
The league is sending its players to the epicenter of the outbreak in America, for a tournament that will most likely feature some above-average soccer at best, all while failing to maintain a proper bubble and quarantine. MLS now has its own “Fyre Festival” waiting to happen (in fact- there’s even a twitter account with a “Fyre Fest” avi that claims to be inside the bubble).
The biggest problem with #MLSisBack is that it has rapidly turned into a dangerous and unpredictable situation that puts players’ lives at risk. Players shouldn’t have to force themselves to make the painful choice of leaving their families and loved ones to go do their jobs, while putting themselves at risk of contracting a debilitating and potentially devastating disease.
Granted, millions of frontline and essential workers are making that exact same decision every day, and we should all be eternally grateful for the work and services they provide. But many of those workers (and not nearly enough of them, mind you) are being supplied with personal protective equipment, and their workplaces are taking precautions to mitigate safety and lower the risk of transmission. And if, say, around a dozen people in the workplace tested positive for COVID-19, said workplace would most likely be shut down and all exposed employees would be instructed to isolate.
If other workplaces are doing all of that… why isn’t MLS?
MLS is a business- I get it. These players want to do their jobs and play the game that they love. I recognize there’s a lot of money on the line, and I want players to be properly compensated and receive their paychecks! And I do want the Timbers to be back, so badly. The necessity of keeping money flowing and the inherent desire of fans of the league to watch soccer again set the league on the course for this tournament, and I’ll recognize that those are powerful forces.
But imagine the worst case scenario: an outbreak occurs in the bubble. The results could be catastrophic. Never mind just the public relations armageddon this would be for the league- careers could be ruined, and lives could be lost. In addition to players, there are also numerous training and support staff that would be put in harm’s way. This has the potential to ruin people’s lives, and tarnish the league’s reputation. And all evidence suggests that we may be on our way to just a scenario.
So I ask: is this all worth it? There are so many reasons that there is a push to play this tournament, some that I, as someone who is not a professional soccer player, admit I cannot ever fully understand. I don’t know what conversations or thoughts or feelings the players are having. Maybe I’m off-track and everyone involved accepts the risks and deems playing games as worth the potential danger. But the risks seem to be stacking higher and higher by the day, and the whole situation seems to be barreling towards disaster.
I don’t claim to know what the solution is. I don’t know if the season should just be canceled outright, or if that’s a thing that can even be done while compensating players, or if the tournament and season can be postponed. But I do know that right now, everyone’s priority during the pandemic is keeping each other safe and healthy. If this tournament happens, I do not think that anyone in the league can claim they are doing that. Maybe this thing still gets played- at the time of this writing, teams are still planning on reporting to Orlando, and the league appears to be pushing forward with the tournament. If it does, I’ll admit that I’ll watch. But there will be a big, festering pit in my stomach as I do.
July 8th 2020 is when MLS is supposed to be back. I don’t think it should be.