The first game is not for another two weeks, but already Tommy Thompson and his teammates with the San Jose Earthquakes are inside “the bubble” at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex. The world and its virus are outside. That’s the plan, anyway.
Soon all of Major League Soccer will join them for the MLS is Back Tournament, scheduled to run July 8-Aug. 11. Traveling sports NASCAR and PGA Tour golf began last month. The National Women’s Soccer League opens Saturday in Utah. MLS will be the first male major sports league in the U.S. to being competing since the COVID-19 pandemic led to a shutdown in all significant world sports.
As such leagues as the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball have attempted to launch or relaunch seasons without spectators in the stands, there has been plenty of concern voiced about participant safety. Some prominent athletes, such as Megan Rapinoe and Christen Press of the NWSL, have opted not to participate.
So how about it: Does Thompson feel safe returning to work?
“I think that’s an important question to ask,” Thompson told Sporting News. “I do feel safe. I think there’s been a ton of precautions that have been taken, and we’ve already been tested twice. It’s good to see that there is a process in place to protect us from the virus. I’m really optimistic about this tournament and what’s going to transpire here in Orlando.”
He was not alone. Presented a similar question during a league sponsored Zoom call with media members who cover soccer — after a 15-minute break had been taken in advance to sanitize the chair where he’d be positioned — Orlando City forward Chris Mueller emphatically said, “I feel as safe as I could possibly be, to be honest. The professionalism that the league has taken to make us all feel safe, and follow as strict protocols as possible, has been outstanding. I feel almost safer here than I was at home.”
At 24, Thompson has been with the Earthquakes for seven seasons and last year made 28 starts. He was in the lineup at right back for both of this season’s games before the hiatus, of which they drew one and lost one. They will open against the Seattle Sounders July 10 at 10:30 p.m.
In between now and then, there will be a fair amount of training and an enormous amount of waiting. Living inside such a bubble is a different experience for all involved, albeit not so terribly different for those who obeyed quarantine restrictions in various locales between March and May.
Except, for the MLS players, there will be soccer games. When MLS play was suspended March 12, they did not know whether or when they would be able to resume competing. When they returned to individual training in early June, they weren’t certain exactly what they were preparing to do. The tournament was announced a week later, and Thompson is eager for it to commence — even if it means confronting the reigning champions on day one.
“I think it was a big step forward for us to have a start date, and to have something to look forward to,” Thompson said. “To finally know — you’re running on your own, or you’re running with the team, and there’s a reason behind it — it’s just been such a relief. Because now we’re putting in work and we know why we’re putting in work. I’m excited for that game against Seattle. I’m excited for the other games, as well.
“It felt great to be back on the field. When we all took that bus together for the first time, to be able to train with contact, to be able to play small-sided games again, it felt really good.”
It has meant, for all involved, finding ways to pass the time between sessions on the field. There are the obligatory video games, and why not? It is a harmless way to entertain one’s self and to bond with teammates simultaneously. The Earthquakes won’t just be playing “FIFA 20,” though.
“Some guys read a lot. Some guys are taking classes, which is a really positive thing to do,” Thompson said. “For me, I’m running Zoom training sessions with a couple clubs out in California. For me, that’s been a fun way to pass the time, just trying to give back to the soccer community. And find something to do.”
Earthquakes center back Oswaldo Alanis, who has 21 caps with the Mexico national team, said the isolation of the bubble is less an issue for him than those MLS players who will spend weeks away from their families.
“For me, it’s something that I’m used to,” Alanis said. “I’ve lived 11, 12 years alone, and when you’re at home you have to find a way or make things that you can enjoy, and you can pass the time. For me, it’s not so hard.”
For all involved, though, it will require perhaps as much discipline to maintain “the bubble” as it customarily does for professional athletes to train or get the proper nutrition or rest.
“I think it’s understood,” Thompson said. “We’ve seen what’s happened with different teams in different sports, and we want to make sure that we do everything we can to keep us all heathy, and we want to make sure we prevent the spread of COVID. That’s what we’re focusing on. Everyone’s doing everything they can to make sure everyone’s heathy.”
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