By Kevin Peterson | Photo by Patil Khakhamian
The 2020 Major League Soccer (MLS) season, like various other sporting leagues, ended abruptly in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After less than a month of competition, it was a disappointing end to the league’s twenty-fifth season.
Despite the suspension of the regular season, the MLS created the MLS is Back Tournament, similar to the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League, playing a series of games in Orlando, Fla. where restrictions are looser than other areas of the country. Although the tournament was played in an empty stadium, it was aired on ESPN and attracted over 450,000 viewers for just the opening game. However, the return to play on July 8 brought many challenges in maintaining the health and safety of players, staff, and officials.
Before traveling to Orlando, each player, coach, and essential staff member taking part in the tournament were tested for COVID-19 twice in 24 hours through the league’s partnership with BioReference Lab. Once the lab ensured that players tested negative for the virus, each of the 24 teams participating in the tournament traveled to Orlando via private plane.
When the players arrived at the tournament’s venue, the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, they received an additional test. The players were only permitted to train once they received a negative result.
Cole Bassett, a Colorado native who signed with the Colorado Rapids when he was only 17 years old, was one of the 25 players who traveled to Orlando with the Rapids. The young center midfielder was able to give me some insight on life in “the bubble.”
“We had the whole hotel in Orlando to ourselves,” Basset said. “It was pretty strict, and they had security guards at almost every entrance and exit so that no one could leave the bubble and be exposed to anything. The only times we could leave was for practice in our team-specific bus.”
The players ate meals only with their respective teams. There were separate areas for dining for each team rather than a communal dining area to minimize the risk of potential outbreaks across teams. The players spent most of their time in their own rooms, as they weren’t allowed to go into other players’ rooms as they would on most travel trips.
Shortly after arrival at the tournament, both FC Dallas and Nashville SC had a series of positive cases within their teams. Eventually, both teams were dismissed from the tournament.
“When we were going down there, nobody felt very safe to be honest because we were going into a bubble that had 20 cases of COVID at least,” said Basset. “But the MLS did a good job isolating the players and then eventually sending them home.”
Amid a pandemic, the suspension of sports seems a minor inconvenience in the grand scheme of things. However, for casual sports fans and die-hard supporters alike, the resumption of the MLS and other leagues is a welcome distraction from current world events.
The MLS is Back Tournament concluded on August 11 when the Portland Timbers beat Orlando City to win the tournament. The regular season resumed on August 12 with games scheduled through September. However, the MLS postponed five matches this week amid player protests and boycotts due to racial injustice.