Positive tests, isolation, uncertainty: MLS' mess shows what other U.S. leagues are in for

MONTREAL, QC - FEBRUARY 29:  The official MLS ball ahead of the game between the Montreal Impact and New England Revolution at Olympic Stadium on February 29, 2020 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. The Montreal Impact defeated New England Revolution 2-1.  (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)
MLS will be the first major U.S. men's sports league to resume during the pandemic. (Photo by Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

Five days before MLS kicks off a league-wide tournament in Orlando, one of its 26 teams, FC Dallas, is on lockdown in hotel rooms. Around half of the other 25 haven’t yet arrived. Some have sat on buses awaiting COVID-19 test results. Others have been hesitant to travel.

The virus, meanwhile, is inside MLS’ bubble. It’s inducing anxiety. It’s already upending carefully-crafted plans. And it’s hinting at just how messy U.S. team sports in 2020 will be.

That is, if they happen at all.

At the heart of MLS’ pre-tournament troubles are COVID characteristics that every sport, and every American institution, must confront. Entering the month, Florida’s surging case counts dominated headlines. But the virus didn’t penetrate MLS’ bubble from the surrounding community. It came from Dallas. And now from elsewhere. And now there’s no telling how much it has spread.

‘It just shows you how vulnerable we all are’

Dallas’ players have been quarantined in their rooms for three days — communicating via Zoom, sending one another supportive messages — because upon arrival in Orlando on Saturday, two players tested positive for the coronavirus. On Sunday and Monday, four more positive tests brought the team total to six. On Wednesday, according to a report from The Athletic, three more Dallas players and one coach tested positive.

Luchi Gonzalez, Dallas’ head coach, was not one of the 10. But as he said in a remarkable interview with 105.3 The Fan, “that doesn’t mean that I can’t [test positive] tomorrow. Or in the next few days. ... I’ve been exposed to the players, we’ve all been exposed to each other.

“We’ve followed every step mandated by the government, by the league, by doctors. And we feel really proud of the steps we’ve taken. But it just shows you how vulnerable we all are.”

It shows how vulnerable any individual, any team, any league, bubble or no bubble, is. Every member of Dallas’ traveling delegation tested negative “prior to the club’s departure,” according to the team. Upon arrival, that changed. The two positive players isolated. When two became six, the entire team isolated. The club-wide quarantine will halt the outbreak.

But as Gonzalez mentioned, that doesn’t mean more positives won’t arise. The virus takes time to incubate inside people. After someone has contracted it, experts say, he or she likely won’t test positive until 4-7 days later. To be absolutely sure of no more intra-team spread, Dallas players will have to quarantine until Tuesday, July 7, or thereabouts. Their first game is scheduled for Thursday, July 9. Several players wouldn’t be available. The rest would’ve been cooped up, unable to train, for a week.

That game, as of Friday morning, is still on. But “the match is secondary,” Gonzalez said. “I don’t know if it’ll maintain its current fixture date. I don’t know if it’ll get postponed. I don’t know if we’ll continue in the event.”

Training vs. human health

And now Dallas isn’t alone. The Columbus Crew arrived in Orlando on Sunday. They trained Monday and Tuesday. All early tests came back negative. Then, on Wednesday and/or Thursday, a player tested positive.

And now the Crew, eight days before their opener, face a dilemma so many U.S. sports teams will.

This, again, is likely a case of home-market infection. The player presumably contracted the virus late last week. What league officials can’t know, and won’t know with certainty until next week, is whether the player infected teammates this week.

What the team and league must decide is whether those potentially-infected teammates can keep training. If they quarantine, and don’t train until next week, they’ll be at a competitive disadvantage when matches begin. If they resume training, they could spread the virus to yet more teammates. They could become FC Dallas. They could have to withdraw from the tournament.

The Crew said in a statement they would resume training “pending MLS approval.” We’ll see whether the league grants it. The decision is very clearly one between the competitiveness of a soccer tournament and the health of a couple dozen human beings.

This, in 2020, is what American sports have come to.

‘I don’t know what tomorrow brings’

The NBA isn’t MLS, and its own plan should provide more cover. Whereas MLS teams are arriving in Orlando a week before their first games, NBA teams will arrive three weeks before the restart. Players will be tested on four consecutive days, twice before departure, twice upon arrival. Per the league’s “Health and Safety Protocols” document, which was obtained by Yahoo Sports, players will quarantine in hotel rooms for “approximately 36-48 hours” before team workouts can begin.

Yet this doesn’t eliminate the possibility of an FC Dallas or Columbus Crew situation. A player could contract the virus a day before departure. He wouldn’t test positive until a few days after arrival. He could spread the virus to teammates over the latter half of that interim.

More importantly, these scenarios could arise at any point over the coming months. They will very likely arise in baseball and football without stationary bubbles. One player will test positive. Health authorities will have no idea who else, or how many others, were subsequently infected before the case was detected.

That’s the scary part. It’s why uncertainty flourishes. “Every day we wake up and we don’t know whether there will be a case on our team or someone we’ve been in contact with,” Minnesota United goalkeeper Tyler Miller told ESPN’s Stefano Fusaro on Thursday. “Trying to manage that has been challenging for a lot of guys I’ve spoken with around the league.”

There have also been reports of false positives around MLS. The inconsistency of tests accentuates every unknown. Unknowns make it difficult to focus on soccer.

“Right now we have a roster that can still mathematically compete,” Gonzalez said of FC Dallas. “But then again, there’s tests every day. We’re going to see if there’s more positives. I don’t know what tomorrow brings, or the day after.”

Stuck in his hotel room for three days, Gonzalez said he’d had time to reflect. And perhaps we all should too. The uncertainty, the sickness, the fear ... is it really worthwhile? Will the sports even be that enjoyable?

The storylines, if and when the games do begin, won’t be matchups or rivalries or revenge. They’ll be COVID-19 and SARS-CoV-2 and the coronavirus.

Perhaps it’s all financially preferable to the alternative. But it’s going to be frightening. And exhausting.

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