Life inside the MLS bubble, where COVID-19 and comfort clash

Yahoo Sports

The call came at 3 a.m. Columbus Crew head coach Caleb Porter will never forget it. In a previously tranquil Disney World hotel room, in the wee hours of the second day of July, he picked up his phone. On the other line was Clive Brewer, the team’s director of high performance. Brewer had a message that couldn’t wait for sunrise: A Crew player had tested positive for COVID-19.

The coronavirus had already penetrated Major League Soccer’s bubble. Now it had arisen within a second club. And it was around this time, with FC Dallas already quarantined in hotel rooms, that concern began to simmer. Among players, messages flew. Information travels fast in MLS circles. “Everyone outside the bubble was texting us,” says FC Cincinnati defender Nick Hagglund. “Like, ‘What's going on?’ ”

The following day, Nashville SC arrived with COVID as well. Their meal room at Disney is near Cincinnati’s. “We see them out in the hallway going to get food,” Hagglund says of last weekend. “And guys just get nervous. … You can't see COVID-19, so everywhere you walk, you feel like there's a possibility of getting it.”

That’s life in 2020. And sports aren’t exempt. For days leading up to MLS’ restart, uncertainty swirled. Dallas withdrew. Nashville is now out, too. Yahoo Sports spoke with six players on the record this week. They echoed what others have said publicly: Yes, it’s all a bit “nerve-wracking.” Yes, it’s “awkward” and “worrisome.” As Philadelphia Union midfielder Alejandro Bedoya said Tuesday: “Some guys are obviously anxious.”

Yet the players, for the most part, feel safe. They credit the league with going to both mundane and extraordinary lengths to shield them. There are qualms, and feelings that outsiders don’t understand their sacrifices, and rumblings of discontent, some of which were expressed on a Tuesday conference call with league executives and a medical expert. “Sometimes they gave [commissioner Don] Garber a hard time,” New England Revolution defender Andrew Farrell says of his fellow players.

But “they've done a really good job,” Farrell says of the league. Adds Hagglund: “MLS has done everything they can to make sure that this is seamless.” Some players who packed worry have been appeased. “I have been quite impressed with how smooth everything is going, and how organized things are,” says Sporting Kansas City defender Matt Besler.

And they all now have inside perspectives on a novel phenomenon: life in a sports bubble.

The MLS is Back Tournament is a new, uncertain experience for the players. (Via FC Cincinnati)
The MLS is Back Tournament is a new, uncertain experience for the players. (Via FC Cincinnati)

COVID-19 testing (and arcade games) get glowing reviews

Hagglund wakes up everyday at the Swan and Dolphin Resort, MLS’ Disney hub, and makes himself coffee. “Because I don't like the coffee here,” he says with a chuckle. Then he, like hundreds of players across the league, takes his own temperature with a supplied thermometer. He records it, then snags his credential and mask, and heads down to breakfast. All 26 teams have their own meal room. Players grab disposable utensils and a tray. They mosey up to a counter, where plexiglass shields protect them from direct contact with servers. The setup, per players’ descriptions, is half Chipotle, half middle school lunch. And the food quality?

“Decent,” says Houston Dynamo striker Christian Ramirez. “But it isn't what you would normally get on a road trip.”

“Good,” is the word Chicago Fire defender Jonathan Bornstein uses.

“Alright,” Hagglund says. “Just alright.”

Players save their glowing reviews for the coronavirus testing logistics. “That was one of the questions that we had,” Besler says. “How are you gonna test 40 guys on a team, and do it in a timely manner?”

But each team has its time slot, every other day. “It literally takes five minutes for your entire team to go through,” Besler says, amazed. “There's probably 8-10 different available stations, available nurses, at a time.” Players walk up to one, give their name and date of birth, and confirm their identity. The test administrator, in full protective gear, takes a swab from one nostril. Then a swab from the other. And the player is done.

In downtime, leisure options are plentiful. Outdoors, there are pools and golf courses and beach volleyball courts; and teqball tables and cornhole and human-size chess boards. Indoors, each team has a three-room lounge. There’s a ping-pong table, an Xbox and/or PlayStation, a card table, board games, and an old-school arcade — which has brought back childhood memories for Besler. “Some of the young guys think I'm crazy,” he says. “They have no idea what some of these games are.”

“It's been pretty fun to be a little kid again,” Bornstein says.

In a way, some players say, it feels like a gargantuan youth tournament or an extended preseason camp. “The weirdest thing is just, like, seeing Thierry Henry in the lobby,” Farrell says. “It's so cool.”

Training in the MLS bubble in Orlando has a youth camp vibe, according to certain players. (Via Chicago Fire)
Training in the MLS bubble in Orlando has a youth camp vibe, according to certain players. (Via Chicago Fire)

And when they’re fraternizing with teammates, players say, the virus isn’t top-of-mind. Of course, the occasional sneeze stops every nearby conversation in its tracks. But players hold one another accountable on safety. When they cross paths with other teams, they hug opposite walls rather than old friends. “You see former teammates in the hallways, but you can't dap ‘em up,” Farrell explains. You can only say hello at a distance. And you don’t ride in the same elevator — even if that means a morning logjam.

Despite the temptations of a Disney resort, however, many players hole up in quiet rooms. Farrell is reading “The Tipping Point.” Revs teammate Scott Caldwell is cruising through “Defending Jacob.” Hagglund has watched “The Outsider” and “Chernobyl” on HBO. He’s now reading “The New Jim Crow.”

He, and dozens of other players, also devote as much time as possible to video calls with the spouses and children they miss dearly.

Chief concern among MLS players? Their loved ones

Christian Ramirez spends 99 percent of non-soccer time in his hotel room. At breakfast, lunch and dinner, he boxes up food in a styrofoam carton and returns to his den. He’s not afraid of COVID, or of socializing with teammates. But at any moment, he might have to rush home.

Ramirez’s wife, Valerie, is pregnant with their second child, due on July 24. They were in the hospital twice last week, for hours. “We thought she was going into labor,” Christian says. But not yet.

He considered opting out of Orlando, like other stars have, especially when his 2-year-old daughter got sick. “We couldn't figure out what was going on,” Ramirez says. “She had to do a biopsy on her knee. Luckily it was just an infection that spread to her knee and growth plates. But it was challenging times.”

He decided to opt in. It might be his last chance to play competitive soccer this year. “Initially,” he says, “we discussed a plan for me to leave [Orlando for my child’s birth] and then come back, following whatever protocols was needed. But given the situation that has happened with Dallas and with Nashville, I don't think the league is as comfortable with that anymore.”

So he trains, and attends meetings, and prepares for the Dynamo’s Monday opener. But he’s not sure he’ll still be around for it. Family is “on the forefront” of his mind. He’ll leave when Valerie goes into labor. And he knows, at that moment, that “I'll be ruled out of the tournament,” he says. Or at least he assumes. “I'm still waiting to confirm protocol,” he clarifies. But he understands if those protocols prevent players from leaving and re-entering the bubble.

“In a perfect world,” Ramirez continues, “if I was an NBA or MLB player who had my own private plane, I would assume [the league would] be more accepting of me flying for 24 hours and coming back and quarantining, and being tested for a couple days, knowing that I was just going into the room with my wife, and seeing my daughters, and coming back. But given the times, I don't think that I'll be allowed back into the tournament.”

It’s the type of dilemma sports bubbles have created. For many players, COVID isn’t the primary concern. It’s loved ones, and time away from them, during a period when loved ones matter more than ever. Besler has a wife and two young girls back in the Kansas City area. “It's been fine so far, but we've only been down here for two or three days,” he says. “I miss ‘em like crazy. I can't imagine, you get further into the tournament, that's going to be a huge challenge for the players that have families.”

Players are competing at the MLS is Back Tournament while away from their families, and that can be a big challenge. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)
Players are competing at the MLS is Back Tournament while away from their families, and that can be a big challenge. (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)

FaceTime and Zoom make long-distance communication easier than ever. But distance is still distance. Bornstein’s wife and two daughters are spending time with family in Mexico while he’s gone. “I'm missing them quite a bit,” he says. “And I know they're missing me, too.” They connect via video calls a few times per day. His older daughter understands what’s going on. “The younger one, she doesn't get it so much,” he says. “She's the one, every day, saying, ‘Come! Now! Come in the car! Come now!’ And I'm like, ‘Oh, man!’ ” Bornstein says, laughing. “It breaks my heart to have to tell her, ‘OK, it might be a little bit more time.’ ”

Family support systems have helped players like Bornstein and Ramirez. But not all MLS dads have them. Which makes things hard. 

When they board buses, though, and slide into assigned seats; when they pass more temperature checks, and tug cleats tight over their feet; when they step onto one of 14 training fields at Disney, they lock in. All players interviewed for this story say that the surrounding circumstances, come soccer time, don’t affect them.

“The field's actually been the one place I can escape, and just sort of focus,” Ramirez says. “And get away from the world.”

MLS is back, but coronavirus threat never left

But the world, sometimes, gets in the way of sports. Hours after that early-morning phone call, Porter gathered his players virtually. He asked how each of them was doing. He delivered the news, and explained the situation. The Crew had come to Florida for soccer. But soccer was on hold for the foreseeable future. Players self-isolated in their rooms. The positive test, Porter says, “obviously rattled us a little bit.” The subsequent days of isolation, he says, “were tough, mentally and physically.”

After around 48 hours, quarantine was lifted for everyone but the infected player. Two rounds of tests came back negative, then three, each bringing a sense of relief. Training resumed, but indoor lifts in makeshift weight rooms didn’t. Meals were eaten in rooms. That was the club’s precautionary choice.

After five days of negative tests, semi-normalcy resumed. But a warmup friendly had been canceled. A training session got cut short by a storm. A few players have picked up minor injuries. Everybody is adapting. Even Chicago, who has been uninfected by the virus, has been affected. Its opener against Nashville was postponed, then canceled. Now it has to switch groups. It tried to scrimmage Minnesota on Wednesday to stay sharp. Weather called the match off after 45 minutes.

All of which begs the question: Given the uncertainty, and the incomplete participation, and the mental toll … Has all competitive integrity evaporated from MLS’ tournament?

The withdrawals, by both individuals and entire teams, “take a little bit away from it,” Hagglund says. “If it's the only competition of 2020, it's something. But I also think there's a little bit of an asterisk to it.”

Farrell takes the opposite view. There’s still prize money and a CONCACAF Champions League spot at stake. “It's a lot on the line,” he says. “So if you're down here, and you're just taking the piss, it's like, why are you down here? I think everybody's ready to compete at a high level.”

To Besler, the competition’s prestige is one of many “unknowns.” He suspects teams that exit winless will discard it as meaningless; and that finalists will do the opposite. But there’s no precedent. “That's one of the exciting things about playing in this tournament, it's never been done before,” he says. “I guess it's as big as we make it. As the players make it, the fans, the media. So we'll see.”

And we’ll see whether the virus is under control. Hopefully, Hagglund says, there are no more outbreaks. “Hopefully it's all safe, and we can go on, and this tournament will be a more enjoyable experience than feeling nervous and scared the whole time.”

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