The slow return to professional sports in the United States slogs along. While the coronavirus pandemic has been a factor out of any individual league or athlete’s control, there’s not denying that fans want to see their favorites back on the field of competition.
That hunger to return applies to the athletes themselves, as well. Many Major League Soccer players are in the midst of the longest stretch of their entire lives without being able to simply get out and kick a ball – at least informally – in a competitive atmosphere. The league’s social-distancing guidelines for practice have been relaxed as the emergent nature of the pandemic has faded. Players were initially barred from all team facilities, then granted the opportunity to practice in small groups, and tomorrow, Nashville SC will be among the teams able to return to full-team training.
Those baby steps are leading up to a re-start for a season that was halted almost as soon as it began, with NSC just two games deep in its inaugural year. A tournament in Orlando, Fla. featuring all 26 of the MLS’s teams will begin July 8. The victor of the tournament will earn a berth into the 2021 Concacaf Champions League, and each team’s three games in the group stage (before 16 of them advance to a single-elimination knockout round) will count toward the regular-season table.
Nashville has drawn Chicago Fire FC, Orlando City SC, and the Philadelphia Union in group play (in a uniquely-formatted Group A – which alters the chances of each team to advance to the knockouts). Knowing the opposition makes the return to play seem all the more real for the members of the roster.
“It’s a very exciting time for the players: now we have tangible games on the schedule that we can look to and start preparing mentally, physically, and emotionally,” said midfielder Dax McCarty, the Nashville captain. “I think the physical work that has been put in throughout these last two months has been fantastic. I think we have a group that’s hungry and ready to go compete, and get back out on the field. As far as the specific opponents, I think they all are good teams in their own right, and they all present unique challenges.”
Getting back to the field is not exactly putting the COVID-19 pandemic in the rearview mirror. The teams’ travel and lodging arrangements – and even practice and playing procedures – will include plenty of consideration for the fact that we remain in the midst of a global and national health crisis.
That health crisis has also led to an entirely different dynamic between Major League Soccer and the MLS Players’ Association. After the sides agreed to a Collective Bargaining Agreement in February, the reality of a truncated season required a renegotiation. With potentially fewer games on the schedule – and certainly fewer games in teams’ home stadiums, packed to the gills with fans – the league felt the need to adjust the financial terms. An extended tournament at a neutral site in Orlando was a further complicating situation with the return to play: it meant the owners getting the MLSPA on board with a new agreement.
Unfortunately, while the outcome of that negotiation will see top-flight American soccer return to the field, it comes at significant costs. The relationship between the owners on their labor force will take some time to heal.
“I think it’s been an incredibly frustrating process, just based on the moving pieces of this whole process and how that’s all gone,” said NSC defender Daniel Lovitz, one of the team’s representatives to the Players’ Association. “But we talk about it a lot, and it’s something that we kind of acknowledge as a group of players: it’s that when things become difficult, or very uncertain or scary, I think you have a much better idea of who you’re dealing with, and people’s character really comes out.
“What we were shown from the league, frankly, was not good enough. It was an insistence on making the discourse adversarial. It was disrespectful at times. It felt like we weren’t really trying to get a deal done. It felt like we were – for lack of any better words, it was just a really, really frustrating an unpleasant process.”
Getting back to the field doesn’t erase what developed into an antagonistic relationship between the parties. It does help return to a sense of normalcy, though, and with that normalcy will hopefully come the first steps toward being on positive terms from a management-labor perspective.
“I think I speak for everybody in sharing how excited and relieved we all are to be returning to the field relatively soon, and to be doing so under a certain set of circumstances where we have financial and a general economic deal that is included in the parameters of what we’re going to accomplish in Orlando,” Lovitz explained. “Obviously, everyone’s aware of what’s going on as far as the pandemic goes, and there isn’t a lot that we can predict moving forward as it moves into the later parts of the Summer and the Fall. For what we’re able to establish at the moment, Orlando is the most attainable goal for us as a league and as a set of players to go and compete and to provide a platform to compete for the fans again and to do what we do.”
For McCarty, the sense of normalcy extends beyond the players himself: getting back on the field serves the fans, as well.
“I think getting back on the field is just a mental weight that’s going to be lifted off every player’s shoulders once we actually start playing the games,” he said. “There’s a ton of uncertainty in the world right now, there’s a ton of uncertainty in the sporting world right now, but just the fact that – like I said earlier – we have a target to look forward to, we have tangible games that the league is excited about and that our fans are excited about; players can put aside some of the… maybe… unfortunate circumstances of having to leave family for a long time and focus on being on the field and focus on being ready to play.”
While the game schedule has not been released in a finalized form, Nashville SC is expected to begin its time in Orlando July 9, facing either Chicago or Philadelphia, as Orlando kicks off the tournament the morning prior against Inter Miami CF.
Dax McCarty photo by Tim Sullivan/For Club and Country