MLS is back ... in a Covid-19 hotspot with terrible food

Graham Ruthven
The Guardian
<span>Photograph: Lynne Sladky/AP</span>
Photograph: Lynne Sladky/AP

Omar Gonzalez probably expected a little more from a summer trip to Walt Disney World than a soggy-looking sandwich and a banana in a box. No Dole Whips or Mickey Mouse lollipops in sight, and there was certainly no evidence of the “house roasted prime New York strip loin” the Toronto FC defender’s $65 lunch had been billed as on the menu.

“#MLSisBack,” Gonzalez tweeted along with a photo of his underwhelming meal last week. It was the first peek behind the curtain of preparations to get the ball rolling again after Covid-19 shut down the league: a 54-game tournament in Orlando. The US international’s sarcastic depiction of a soccer Fyre Festival was funny, but Gonzalez, and the rest of his MLS peers, soon had more than a disappointing lunch to worry about. Much more.

With each team that arrived in Florida, MLS’s problems, and positive tests for Covid-19, piled higher and higher. FC Dallas had only checked in when it emerged six of their players had tested positive for Covid-19. Later in the same day, a further three (and one coach) also tested positive with the Texan side ultimately withdrawn from the tournament just two days before its kick off. The Columbus Crew also registered a positive test upon arrival in Orlando, with a number of teams also delaying their journey due to positive tests. For context, only 19 positive case results have been registered by all 20 Premier League teams over 12 rounds of testing since the resumption of its season. Zero positive tests were returned in this week’s round.

Related: The NBA's Disney World dream could turn into a nightmare, fast

Then there was the postponement of Wednesday’s match between Nashville and Chicago after five Nashville players tested positive and Carlos Vela’s decision not to play, a symbolic rebellion that struck a decisive blow to MLS’s hopes of ignoring everything that has engulfed the tournament. The absence of the league’s best player, along with a number of other notable figures across MLS, is a mark of uncertainty over the safety of the whole endeavour.

MLS’s idea of playing a mini-tournament in one location was controversial, to begin with. While almost every other major soccer league around the world has found a way to restore some sense of normalcy amid the pandemic, with the Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga and Serie A completing their seasons as they were intended, albeit without fans in the stands, MLS has its 26 member teams (25 now that FC Dallas have gone home) in one location for a tournament crowbarred into the regular season in a way nobody quite fully understands. The group stages kick off on Wednesday night with a first-ever Florida derby between Orlando City and Inter Miami, with the final to be played on 11 August. The regular season is scheduled to start some time after that.

<span class="element-image__caption">MLS’s reigning MVP, Carlos Vela, has withdraw from the tournament.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Victor Cruz/AFP/Getty Images</span>
MLS’s reigning MVP, Carlos Vela, has withdraw from the tournament. Photograph: Victor Cruz/AFP/Getty Images

At the centre of MLS’s plans is the ‘bubble’ environment the league’s 1,300-strong contingent of players, coaches and team staff will operate within. The ESPN Wide World of Sports complex at Disney World was selected as the tournament’s hub for its abundance of facilities and accommodation around the sprawling resort, but there’s only been so much MLS has been able to do to keep itself isolated from the general population.

Florida is the hottest of Covid-19 hotspots right now, with the state recording a new daily record cases nearly every 24 hours for the past two weeks or so. MLS tried to argue it could exist in isolation. That they would be able to prepare, train and play games separated from whatever is happening in the outside world, but the reality quickly proved to be very different.

Ample warning was given over what might happen once MLS teams started to pitch up in Orlando. Last month saw 10 members of Orlando Pride players test positive for Covid-19, with reports tracing the outbreak to a bar visit by some of the club’s younger players. This forced the Pride to withdraw from the NWSL Challenge Cup which is now being played without them.

It didn’t take long for the MLS Is Back Tournament, as it is officially titled, to suffer similar issues. Not only has the number of positive test results accumulated, but the concept appears to have lost support from many quarters. The Timbers Army, for instance, called the decision to continue amid the pandemic “dangerous and wholly unnecessary,” while the Philadelphia Union’s Alejandro Bedoya predicted MLS’s Orlando lodgings would be like “a luxurious prison”. Disney World’s footprint might be the size of San Francisco, but it’s not as if players can hitch a ride on Pirates of the Caribbean or have a go on the monorail in between practice sessions. To outsiders, the MLS ‘bubble’ looks a miserable place to be.

Gonzalez’s tweet, while comical, came with significant undertones. After the toxic CBA negotiations which ultimately saw MLS threaten a lockout in order to force through its plans for resumption, players are now more willing to publicly call out the league for its failings. Gonzalez hasn’t been the only one to put his head above the parapet. The Colorado Rapids’ Diego Rubio revealed slack safety standards within the ‘bubble,’ while an anonymous Twitter account (@MLSCovidCup) was set up to capture various failings. A number of players have retweeted the account. The farce of the whole experience in Orlando will have only added to the sense among MLS’s player pool that the league doesn’t have its players’ best interests at heart.

The hope is that once play starts, once there are goals and games to talk about, all the problems will become no more than background noise. European leagues faced challenges before resuming, but have managed to move through their revised schedule with minimal fuss. And there is some logic behind MLS’s decision to resume play: North America’s big leagues – MLB, the NFL, NBA and NHL – are all on hiatus giving the chance for domestic soccer to grab the limelight. And the NBA, which has far more resources at its disposal, has also come across problems as it attempts its own restart in Florida later this month.

Nobody is quite sure what will unfold over the next month-and-a-half, but at least one thing has been made clear - bring your own food.

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