After sitting empty for nearly two full months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Sports Center in Blaine welcomed back Minnesota United players this week for limited, individual workouts.
Mandatory temperature tests and distancing guidelines were just a couple of the many limitations that came with getting back on the field, but during a conference call Thursday afternoon with the media, both head coach Adrian Heath and midfielder Ethan Finlay said it was good to begin the first portion of what hopes to be an eventual return to normalcy.
“We did some drills the other day, and I felt like I was pretty fit from the running we did in our second phase [of at-home training], but when you start to combine working with the ball in tight spaces and whatnot, you start to get a little more tired a little quicker,” said Finlay. “So that little soccer aspect, it comes back quickly, but it’s been a really big step this week to get the ball at our feet.”
Heath also laid out a potential timeline for how these practices could progress from individual to group sessions.
“We’ve put a lot of time and work into what we’ve been doing [both at home and during this week’s individual training], but there’s only so much you can do with one player, one ball at a time,” Heath explained. “We’re hoping that maybe next week or the week after we’ll get into some small groups, because that will be more game-related.”
Getting “game-ready” in a timely manner has become a little more important over the last 48 hours, because during a Wednesday meeting between MLS Commissioner Don Garber and the league’s head coaches, a proposal for a potential summer tournament in Orlando, which would include all 26 teams, was presented and well-received.
Details on the setup and schedule for the tournament were few and far between in the initial reports, but according to Heath, it looks, at least at this point, to be similar to the World Cup format.
“The initial concept would be like a ‘group stage’ then going through a quarter, a semi, and a final,” said Heath. “I think there’s a few things that need to be ironed out but that was the general principle.”
Those details include making sure the health and safety of the players remains paramount in any proposed scenario that includes returning to games, but there are also financial implications. With more than half the MLS season likely removed, the owners and players need to come together to discuss and agree upon what sort of compensation the players can expect to receive for both the proposed tournament and any league games that occur thereafter.
Finlay, an MLS Players Union leader, spoke candidly about the questions that need to be answered before any games are played, but he also iterated that the players as a whole are extremely eager to play, assuming conditions are optimal and player health remains the priority.
“Two things matter to players. First and foremost, the safety of themselves and their families,” explained Finlay. “The second thing is making sure the competition is worthwhile. We’re going to be putting our bodies on the line, and it’s important that – not only from a compensation standpoint but from a from a competitive standpoint – that it makes sense. When you talk about salary reductions and the CBA conversation, we’re viewing them separately but it does make it difficult on players to make a decision based on the economics of the game, when we really don’t know what’s going to happen from a playing standpoint.”
Even if all the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed, many challenges will remain not only for the players and coaches, but any team and league personnel who will make the trip down to Orlando. Whether this tournament is scheduled for July or August, it’s unlikely every MLS market will be back to a restriction-less lifestyle, which means families will almost certainly be staying behind, constant monitoring and testing will need to be implemented, and a mandatory quarantine will be unavoidable for all individuals making the trip.
As Heath points out, this means Orlando will become more like a temporary residence in this scenario.
“The initial response [from the league] was probably 4-6 weeks depending how long we consider we need in quarantine down in Orlando, how long we need for it to be safe for the players to actually participate at the level that’s required,” explained Heath. “It’s not ideal, we’re aware of that. There’s no perfect solution for this, but we’re trying to come up with a situation that’s good for everybody.”
Even with the uncertainty and vast array of difficulties that are likely to come with putting on a professional soccer tournament during a time when COVID-19 is still likely to be impacting our lives, Finlay has faith in those in charge to present a situation that’s safe for everyone involved, and if that’s the case, he says he’ll have no problem making the trip and participating in the event.
“I play this game to compete and to win, and if that means winning a practice, winning games, or winning a tournament down in Florida going down during the coronavirus pandemic that we’re going through, then so be it,” said Finlay. “We’re going to try to do everything we can to play games this season, and if that means having to go down to Florida and being quarantined and living there for 4-6 weeks then I think I’d be willing to do so.”
Individual workouts at the NSC are slated to continue on Monday.