For MLS fans everywhere, today is both exhilarating and unnerving.
On one hand, the first legitimate league match in nearly four months will be played when host Orlando City takes on in-state rival Inter Miami at a spectator-less Walt Disney Wide World of Sports Complex. On the other, this comes at a time when the United States just reported a record 60,000 new COVID-19 cases in one day.
Florida, which is hosting not only MLS is Back, but also the upcoming NBA and WNBA restarts, has become the epicenter of the virus’ resurgence.
The league has taken measures to limit spread among players and staff by placing them in what many call “the bubble,” which basically means everyone involved with the tournament is quarantined at the Swan and Dolphin Resort, and subjected to mandatory regular testing.
The process, however, has been anything but perfect.
All FC Dallas players and staff tested negative for the virus prior to leaving for Orlando. However, once in the bubble, the team accumulated 10 COVID-19 cases, nine from players, causing them to initially postpone their opening match and eventually be removed from the tournament altogether.
Five players from first-year MLS club Nashville SC also received positive test results after arriving in Orlando, with four additional “inconclusives,” which require further testing to determine a positive or negative outcome. As a result, Nashville’s opening match against Chicago Fire has been postponed.
“MLS will continue to evaluate the club’s participation in the MLS is Back Tournament following the results of additional testing,” the club said in a statement on their website.
It should be noted, with a projected 5-7 day incubation period, it is believed these cases were still contracted before these individuals were placed in the bubble. However, the close proximity both in the resort’s social gathering areas and on the training ground vastly increase the possibility of more cases arising from in-bubble contraction.
Furthermore, MLS is Back has shone a light on the potential flaws in the COVID-19 testing process.
Minnesota United is one of multiple teams to experience “false positive” tests among at least one of their players, meaning the player initially tested positive for COVID-19 only to test negative in multiple follow-ups.
With a lack of clarity regarding the virus’ presence and potential impact on the tournament itself, many MLS players have opted not to participate, and instead stay home to ensure the safety of both themselves and their families.
The most notable example of this is reigning league MVP and Golden Boot winner Carlos Vela from LAFC. Vela, arguably the largest individual draw the league possesses, has made the admirable decision to stay home with his pregnant wife.
Minnesota United CB Ike Opara will miss at least the MLS is Back group stage as he tends to a pre-existing condition. It’s unsure whether or not he will join the club should they advance to the knockout rounds.
The team with the largest contingent of players not participating in the tournament is Vancouver Whitecaps.
“This was an extremely difficult decision for me… Unfortunately, COVID-19 has had a very big impact, taking away two beloved members of my family. I feel that it is best that I remain home to support my loved ones at this challenging time,” said Cavallini via Whitecaps social media.
Echoing these concerns are individuals within the bubble itself. An anonymous Twitter account, reportedly contributed to by one or more MLS players, has brought to light not only the conditions in which everyone involved with the tournament are living in, but the growing level of unease among the contingency regarding COVID-19’s likely presence and potential spread among those in Orlando, as well as the stark circumstantial difference between now and when the tournament was agreed upon by owners and players.
When players originally agreed to do this, things were much different. So they weren’t prepared. The right thing to do would be to admit that and cancel. There is no Plan B. They’re just winging it at this point. https://t.co/Z8GCWEJjzU
— MLS is Back insider (@MLSCovidCup) July 8, 2020
Despite the cases, unreliable tests, postponements, removals and concerns, the MLS is Back Tournament is expected to kickoff as scheduled tonight with Orlando and Miami (7 p.m./ESPN), but even MLS Commissioner Don Garber hasn’t publicly ruled out the possibility of cancelling the tournament if virus issues grow.
“If there is a situation at any time that I believe that the protocols aren’t working, and the health and safety of our players is at risk, then I will make the decision to shut down the tournament,” Garber said in an interview with the Associated Press.
The combination of excitement and restlessness regarding the start of the tournament, and restart of MLS soccer, leaves fans everywhere torn, and those feelings are likely to remain for as long as the tournament persists.