No longer in the “bubble” of the MLS is Back Tournament, Minnesota United’s players, coaches and staff are back at home and with their families after nearly six weeks of isolation with other teams in Orlando.
Now comes the hard part.
The Loons and the other 25 teams must prove they can play on without contracting the coronavirus outside such protection for 18 more scheduled regular-season games, plus playoffs leading to the MLS Cup.
“Players are going to have to be really, really disciplined in what they do away from the club,” Loons coach Adrian Heath said. “Some of the guys have children maybe going to school. It’s going to present its own issues.”
FC Dallas and Nashville were withdrawn from the tournament just as it started last month when COVID testing revealed outbreaks on both teams. Two other players from separate teams tested positive as well by the tournament’s first week. After that, no players tested positive for nearly a month through the Aug. 11 final won by Portland.
“I never thought I’d be so pleased to get back home,” Heath said. “I have to be honest, the bubble was something I hope I never have to go through again. I don’t think the players have had enough praise — not just our players, all the players — for it. It’s very, very difficult for anybody who wasn’t there to understand what it was like.”
Commissioner Don Garber said lessons learned in Orlando will serve the league well as it goes the route of Major League Baseball, which already has had outbreaks and postponements.
The Orlando experience included medical protocols MLS developed with infectious-disease experts: physical distancing, nasal-swab testing conducted every other day and the day before games, wearing face masks outside of their resort-hotel rooms and frequent hand-washing.
All those continue — and become more important — now that teams are back in their market ready to play games that started when FC Dallas and Nashville met Wednesday. The Loons resume next Friday at Allianz Field in St. Paul against Sporting Kansas City, without spectators allowed.
“Players knew in real time very, very early on how challenging it is,” Garber said in recent a video conference call. “And how important it is to follow medical protocols and what could happen if you don’t. If you don’t, you test positive, you go into isolation and that is disruptive to your personal life, your family life and it certainly is disruptive to what you do for a living.”
Garber said it’s time for MLS to play on because deciding not to do so would be “operating out of fear” rather than “strength and confidence.”
“I believe it’s important to get back doing what we were able to do successfully in Orlando,” Garber said. “We have to give it a try. If it doesn’t work, we don’t move forward.”
Heath acknowledged that it will be a challenge for players in whom he sees a “spring in their step in the training” because they’re happy to be out from under the bubble and back home again.
“We’ll have to do as best we can,” Heath said. “We know it’s not going to be easy because people have lives to lead.”
Loons midfielder Raheem Edwards called it and vital his team get back playing at Allianz Field, spectators or none.
“We knew MLS play possibly would come back on,” Edwards said in an interview conducted by a team employee. “It has come back right around the corner, as soon as we got home. It’s exciting stuff.”
The responsibility Loons players showed in Orlando makes Heath optimistic they can do it back in their normal lives again.
“The way they responded to the bubble, I have every confidence they will be disciplined and diligent now that they’re at home,” Heath said. “Because at the end of the day, they don’t want to waste a year of their career. That’s the things we spoke to the players about: If you’re lucky, you get 10, 12, 15 years. Don’t throw one away from not being disciplined as we can. So we’re hopeful.”