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The Orlando Dilemma

As COVID cases spike up in the sunshine state, is it safe to return to play in Orlando?

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SOCCER: FEB 29 MLS - Orlando City SC v Real Salt Lake

Major League Soccer is only a few weeks away from returning amidst the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic that has consumed everyone’s lives across the globe. The MLS is Back Tournament (that’s the best name you could come up with?) is set to start in a couple of weeks on July 8 in Orlando. As we approach the first match day, issues have begun to arise around the location of the tournament.

Florida has become a new hotbed of COVID-19 cases in an expanding pandemic zone. This past Saturday saw Florida reach a new record numbers of confirmed cases. Florida governor Ron DeSantis and his government have received a mixed review from everyone on how they’ve handled this outbreak. I’m not a health professional, but one has to assume this increase of cases comes from the lackadaisical reopening policies the state has implemented over the last couple of weeks.

So, what does this have to do with MLS? Before yesterday, one had to have looked at the escalating situation in the state with a little concern. Then yesterday, the Orlando Pride story broke.

I don’t remember who reported it first so I apologize, but the Orlando Pride of the National Women’s Soccer League had to drop out of the NWSL Challenge Cup because around 10 players and staff tested positive for the virus. Caitlin Murry of the New York Times, Guardian, and Yahoo Sports reported that the outbreak within the team came after a group of younger Pride players went out to a bar, despite being told to self-isolate before traveling to Salt Lake City on Wednesday.

It now begs the question, is Orlando safe enough to continue with the MLS is Back Tournament? This is a question best asked to a health professional and not a 20-year-old college kid, but here we are. I would say it depends on how you look at it. Is it realistic to keep all 26 MLS teams, within a bubble, for multiple weeks, without any single person leaving that bubble? It’s a complicated logistical question.

We see this conversation a lot with the NBA, who is also planning to restart their season down in Orlando. There have been reports of the NBA’s Orlando bubble being suited out to directly address almost every need of every player and staff member. MLS’s “bubble” most likely will not come with the same amenities. Sticking a bunch of 20 and 30-year-olds in one area for over a month’s span will most likely lead to some issues. What is in place to stop a team going out and enjoying the Orlando nightlife? What happened with the Pride can happen to any team if they fail to adhere to the rules MLS puts in place.

The more positive outlook on what happened with the Pride is none of the cases reported came due to transmission during training or sanctioned team activities. One can hope that this was only an isolated incident and that it can be avoided. This can serve as a benchmark of what not to do.

Across MLS, we have seen a few reported cases across the league. Atlanta United and Inter Miami are the only two teams to report cases, with Atlanta having two and Miami having one. Considering we haven’t heard anything else on the matter, it seems those three cases are isolated incidents that have been handled well by the club. It is unknown if these cases came from transmission from within the club or outside sources. The lack of cases seen throughout the league during the pre-tournament training period has to be seen as a positive.

Despite growing COVID-19 numbers in Florida, is it safe to return to play in Florida? I still think the answer is yes, but obviously with strict rules and extreme caution. We can see how a few players deviating from the rules has led to repercussions for an entire organization. Everyone across the league need to work together and be on the same page in order for this to work. According to a recent article written by Sam Stejskal in the Athletic, the league and the MLS is motoring the situation while some players remain concerned about the spike in cases. With that being said, Don Garber and the MLS hierarchy aren’t dumb and have done their due diligence in setting up this tournament safely.

I believe I stand with everyone is saying that we need sports to come back. The Premier League coming back is nice. But considering I support West Ham, I need to see a good team in New York City FC again. The tournament is set to kick off on July 8th with a Florida derby between Orlando City and Inter Miami. We will have a lot more coming in the upcoming weeks as we look forward to the return of MLS. In the meantime, stay safe and wear a damn mask.