In normal times, New Zealand is distant enough from the apartment Minnesota United rookie defender Noah Billingsley shares with teammate Chase Gasper.
But these now are the strangest of times, which is why one day last week Billingsley’s mother, Wendy, sent this text 8,000 miles across the South Pacific to her son:
“Hope you’re doing good. You feel a long way away. Love ya.”
No major North American professional sport employs as many players from other countries as Major League Soccer does. The Loons have players born and/or raised in New Zealand, England, Paraguay, Uruguay, Slovakia, Cuba, Finland, France as well as Trinidad and Tobago on their roster alone.
While some have become American citizens or U.S. green-card holders, all are oceans or farther from parents, siblings and other loved ones who are facing their own dangers from the coronavirus pandemic. COVID-19 has suspended MLS and other pro leagues indefinitely, shuttering players — and in a few cases their wives and children — inside apartments while a simple roll of toilet paper has become something of a currency.
“It’s like Armageddon or something,” Billingsley said.
MLS’ moratorium on teams’ training has been extended at least through April 3. The league office told its players to stay in their team’s market, safely “social distance” themselves and stay away from public fitness centers and gyms as well as the team’s training facilities unless they need physical therapy provided by club medical staff. It will review individually players’ request to relocate to another market by car.
The season has been suspended until mid-May. The Loons started it with victories at Portland and San Jose before MLS followed Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations and postponed Minnesota United’s March 15 home opener and now at least nine other games.
“You never know,” said Jan Gregus, a veteran Loons midfielder and Slovakia national-team member. “One day you are preparing for New York Red Bulls and next day, you can be in quarantine. It’s really crazy how it changes that fast.”
Stay at home
Here in America, Gregus and his teammates have retreated to their apartments and mostly have stayed there, except for trips to fetch groceries and takeout meals. They’ve gone for walks or runs in their neighborhoods, staying at least 6 feet from others, of course.
Billingsley has stayed in touch often by FaceTime and social media with family and friends back home in New Zealand, which has just started a compulsory four-week lockdown.
“I’d love to be back playing as soon as possible,” said teammate Michael Boxall, a fellow New Zealander like Billingsley, “but obviously the right precaution has to be taken for this type of thing.”
American teammates Tyler Miller, Ethan Finlay and Ike Opara passed the time by posting social-media videos recorded in their apartments. Miller wore a red Christmas suit and participated in a worldwide soccer #StayAtHomeChallenge in which participants juggle with their feet a toilet-paper roll, seeking 10 consecutive touches. Finlay used his ball skills to keep one from his little dog Lola and went online to match followers’ contributions to feed children in these times with a $1,300 match (based on his No. 13 uniform number). Opara played the ukulele.
Boxall and his wife, Libby, have tried to entertain and occupy their 3-year-old daughter Maxwell — “She’s cute most of the time,” he said — with arts and crafts, walks to a nearby park and weekly FaceTime conversations with a cousin back home, while trying to limit her time watching Disney Plus.
“She gets sick of us and wants to go back to her school, but she seems to be coping,” said Boxall, who tries to stay fit by running around Minneapolis’ lakes. “This is obviously unprecedented. You’ve got to be very creative. It has only been a week and everyone might have to bunker down for, what, eight weeks? Nothing we’ve gone through would prepare us for this, but here we are.”
And there was Gregus at the supermarket one day around 4 p.m., a time he said when most people still are at work.
“But the car park was full and people were almost fighting to get their things,” he said. “It was like from a movie.”
Home in America
But Gregus calls it “much better” than how his father described the reaction back home. Central Europe has had far fewer COVID-19 cases — and less testing — than western Europe. Shops and restaurants have closed, and the government has said it will double daily testing.
The country’s newly elected president, prime minister and cabinet members wore gloves and protective masks during their inauguration last week.
“Like my father told me, one day nobody is in the streets,” Gregus said. “Then the government said you should really get ready because it’s getting serious and people are in the street going crazy. It’s not the happiest times. It’s like an apocalyptic movie.”
Slovakia closed its borders to nonresidents two weeks ago. New Zealand did the same last week and is moving to its highest of four alert levels this week throughout the island nation. Its ministry of health has issued the standard recommendations such as wash your hands, stay isolated at home, clean surfaces and this other one: Be kind.
Boxall calls it simply the “New Zealand way” in which he was raised. But he and his young family won’t return home even if time and MLS allow players such travel because “for now this is our home,” he said. “We have everything we need right here.”
Gregus and teammate Robin Lod were set to play for their national teams in Europe this week, but Slovakia’s UEFA qualifier game against Ireland and Finland’s game against Poland were canceled. Lod’s team already has qualified and Gregus’ team still could for those European championships, which have been delayed until 2021.
No going home
Gregus said he won’t travel out of country in these times because of the “many risks” he could face trying to get back into the United States. “Things can change any day,” he said.
Billingsley said he wouldn’t go home, either, for fear he could contract the virus while traveling and infect his family and others without knowing it.
One of Billingsley’s California-Santa Barbara classmates has returned home to Italy, where so many have died that the military now transports bodies and newspapers are filled with obituaries. He calls her social-media posts “quite frightening.”
Former Loons goalkeeper Vito Mannone, now playing in Denmark, told Gregus he can’t return home to Italy until at least June, Gregus said.
Loons players still get paid while MLS games have been postponed. Billingsley, Gregus and Boxall each said he hasn’t felt ill or been tested for COVID-19. The league said it still intends to play a complete season, but players are challenged to stay fit now that the team’s Blaine facility and public gyms are closed. The team’s training and medical staff have issued fitness challenges and nutritional advice for players to follow at home.
“I just hope to train soon in Blaine, even if you’re not training to play games, just to be with the boys,” Gregus said. “You can get better in many ways just training. It can make a difference.”
For now, they will run on their own, isolate at home with movies or video games and do what so many others have done in these times: Search for toilet paper.
“Unfortunately, some people thought buying 50 rolls was a good idea,” Billingsley said, “but it has left people like me with half a roll. Apart from toilet paper, everything else is good.”