TFW you think you will get to see your team play soccer again, but then you don’t.
Ian Ayre met with the media via videoconference this afternoon. Nashville SC’s Chief Executive discussed the squad’s departure from the MLS is Back tournament in Orlando after nine positive tests for the novel coronavirus. Read his full comments here.
Have you had the opportunity to talk to the players about the situation?
“Yes, myself and John Ingram, our owner, spoke collectively with all of the players and all of the coaching staff and staff that are in Orlando this morning, and give them the news. I don’t think it’ll surprise anybody to know that – as well as us – they were all devastated to have to withdraw from the tournament.
“I’d say morale is low, and coming off the back of, only yesterday, knowing we had nine players infected. Gary Smith had a private meeting with the players yesterday just to get the tone from them of their appetite to continue with what would be a depleted squad. To a man, they had big support to carry on. Unfortunately, it was a medical and a timing issue that had us withdraw. The players were 100% committed, right to the end. Devastated to hear the bad news. It will be a low point for a few days I’m sure, and our job, and Gary’s job, and everybody else involved, is to deal with it, dust ourselves off, pick ourselves up and move on. It’s not – you guys here have a say, and it’s not the first rodeo for Nashville Soccer Club, and it’s certainly not our first rodeo in terms of difficult days – but it’s certainly one of the toughest ones.”
How are the players doing physically? Does the club feel like the protocol was followed?
“On the first part, obviously it’s difficult for us to talk about individuals and their medical situation. I don’t think that’s right or proper. What I would say is that the majority of players are asymptomatic. We have a couple with minor symptoms, but they’re getting through it, and they were on the call this morning and doing OK, I would say.
“In terms of the process, look: we followed all the protocols, it was very clear what every team had to do. It was made very clear to every team what the processes – whether that was at practice, to and from practice, at home, on the travel to the event – and to be honest with you, I’ve been pretty incensed over the last 24 hours with some of the suggestions I’ve seen: stuff like apparently some of our players had some big going-away party, which never happened, that we didn’t follow the protocols, or they didn’t, and none of this stuff is with foundation at all, and there’s no substance, and it’s a poor tactic really, I think. We were absolutely stringent in putting those processes and protocols together as directed by the league and by our healthcare partner.
“As late as last night, I was watching the Philadelphia Union-NYCFC [Orlando City-Miami] game, and I saw Taylor Twellman comment that we needed to do our job in preparing our team, and that he didn’t feel bad that we were not participating. I think that’s a) hugely disrespectful to us, but also b) to anyone who’s affected by the virus, be it in soccer or not. You can’t make those sort of sweeping comments without facts, and we 100% worked within the tournament guidelines and protocols.
“You know what? Some of our players got sick, and that spread. As I said, they were wearing masks on the journey down, they were all tested in the days leading up to the trip, and were all fine. We had 20%, in the end, that were infected. So 36 weren’t infected and nine were, so we were doing our job. It’s just this virus is indiscriminate. Whether people were wearing masks or not, people got infected. Who knows how that happened? We don’t know yet where that started – if we ever will. But I can’t honestly, I really can’t accept peop-le making rash sort of conspiracy-theory comments about what we or our players or our staff did or didn’t do. We followed the protocols, and we refute any suggestion that wasn’t the case. If we did something wrong, I’ll be the first person to hold my hand up for this organization and say we got something wrong. But that wasn’t the case here, and our objective has to be to get all of our players and staff back here safely – those who are sick and those who aren’t – and that’s where we go from here. But I’m pretty incensed by some of the chatter that suggests otherwise.”
Do you believe this wasn’t preventable? If so, do you have concerns or lessons for other “bubble” events in other sports?
“If you read a lot of the stuff around staying safe in this current situation globally, it says that wearing a mask is a way to help prevent the spread, but it doesn’t say it’s going to stop it. And I think that’s what we’re beginning to recognize: our players, and our staff, and our club have been wearing masks, getting tested every few days, getting screened in and out of facilities, and yet we still had people catch it, and we still [societally] have people catch it in other walks of life in the same process. I think the learning is that you can’t be too complacent about the virility of this virus. That doesn’t suggest that we didn’t do what we should do, it just suggests that it’s a very potent disease that we have to do the best we can. I genuinely feel that we did the best we can: the rules were the same for everybody, and the systems were the same for everybody.
“As I’ve said, we had a whole team of people tested in the days leading up to going, and then we get to Orlando and we have a couple test positive, and then it spread. Who knows where that happened, and whether we’ll ever get to the bottom of that. But it isn’t through a lack of effort or trying to control it. I think it’s just the virility and the difficulty of this virus. But we’re seeing that everywhere, not just here.”
What did it feel like as the timeline of more positive tests played out? When will infected players return?
“It was difficult, right? Whether it’s your players, your employees, your family, whoever, hearing anybody has this virus is a difficult day. That was no less difficult when we found out we had somebody test, and then obviously the process was pretty stringent within the camp. We were testing and they were continuing to test very often.
“We’ve seen it growing, and there was always the hope that we could contain it quickly, and there wasn’t too many who were incubating and would spread it. I guess you could describe it: it just got slightly worse day-by-day, and then we came out the other side yesterday and today. We had no new cases, but we really ran out of time, rather than a lack of infections. It was good to hear that hopefully it’s stopped or slowed, and that was really important. It’s good to know that those players who have been infected remain largely in reasonable health at this point.
“They’re the things that are most crucial to us right now: it’s devastating to not be part of the tournament that everybody throughout the club put so much effort into – and the league. But we have to really focus on making sure all of our people are safe and well, and we get them back here.
“In terms of when we’ll get everyone back, it’s the same for both those who currently are infected and those who aren’t. There’s actually a call going on right now – another call – between our own health advisors here in Nashville at Vanderbilt, the league’s health advisors, and the player’s union advisors. We’ll essentially work with those three organizations to find the best timing and solution and outcome to get everybody back safe and well. I can’t answer the question in any detail, but with three very senior health people specializing in this for the tournament and for our city and for the player’s union, I think we’d hope to find the best possible outcome.”
Does it feel like Nashville SC’s 2020 season is snakebit?
“The good news for me is I’m the oldest guy in the room, so I’ve been around this sport and the game – the game almost all my life, and in the sport for about 20-odd years. I said this to somebody yesterday and to all our staff today: if you work in sport, you’re going to have good days and bad days, and good months and bad months, and good seasons and bad seasons. It feels like we’ve had a lot of difficult times, but we’ve also had some amazing times.
“Whether it was in the buildup to our start when we had our kit launch and our brand launch. Obviously, our opening day was an amazing memory for everybody. We’ve been smashed in the face three or four times with other issues.
“The strength of the organization is climbing over these hurdles and keeping going, and I have to say that when John and I addressed all of our players and staff this morning, whilst everybody took a real punch in the guy with that announcement, I think coming off that call, we al believed that we’re still one big unit: we’re still all together and we’ll keep moving forward. I absolutely believe that – it doesn’t make it easy, and it doesn’t make it Ok, and it doesn’t mean we have to like it. But it means that we’ve got – and we’ve been fortunate to assemble – a great group of players and staff here. We’ll come back and our focus from today onwards – we’ll give everybody a few days to dust themselves off and get themselves healthy, and whatever time is needed – but then our focus will be on getting everybody fit and ready and prepared for the rest of the season, which will recommence in August post-Orlando, and nothing changes in that regard. We’ve had it tougher than maybe any team’s had in an expansion year so far. But it doesn’t mean that we can’t recover and we can’t be great again, and bring the energy that we saw on February 29th back to soccer in Nashville.
Has the club planned for a protocol to getting training going again?
“I think the answer to that question is we don’t know right now. It is part of the agenda for the conversation that I mentioned earlier that is going on between the various health authorities and the league. What we all expect to come out of that in the next… certainly today, in terms of the healthy return, we’ll be focused on. Pretty soon behind that, based on the same sort of advice, we’ll make a decision on how, and who, and when. I imagine that different players, obviously, are in different categories of healthy and unhealthy right now, and different people became unhealthy at different times. So I think we’ll see a phased reintroduction of some form, but rather than pre-guess what that plays out to eventually, I would say that more on that as we know more. It certainly will all be done with both local, national, and player’s union advice, and we’ll do what’s best for the health and safety of everyone involved.”
Do you have indications of what the home-market season will be like? Will the three missed games be made up?
“No, there’s been no conversation about that. I would hazard a guess that they’re not going to [make up the three missed games]. It looks like the tournament is going up with six groups of four now, so I imagine all of those results will count, and we won’t take any points from that, but we haven’t directly been told that.
“In terms of going forward, there has been some dialogue. It’s not something that we’re able to share at this point, but we do have some sense from talking as a league about what that might look like. I know the plans are for the league to announce that a little bit further down the line.”
What is the importance of having something to play for?
“Because that’s what we’re here for. At the end of the day – as I’ve said earlier – we built an amazing club here, we had an amazing start, we created an amazing audience and energy and excitement in our city. It might have been knocked around a bit in the last few months, and all of us – all of Nashville, in various different ways.
“But we came here and we built this thing. Our owners, and our principal owner, John, invested their money in this because they wanted to see a great team on the soccer field for Nashville. None of that has changed. We might have been over a few hurdles to keep going, but it’s so important that we get back to soccer, it’s so important that our fans get to start seeing these players back on the pitch. We all hoped that was going to be last night, and another hurdle, and another sucker punch. Nobody more than me wants to see the team back on the field. The players want to be there, the coach wants to see them there. They’ve put an awful lot of work in in the last couple of months since we started transitioning back all ahead to deliver for this tournament, and sadly that’s not now to be.
“But it’s so important that we get back. We built a soccer club, and soccer clubs need to be on soccer pitches playing football, and that’s our aim. It’s crucial. It’s targeted to be back post-Orlando. We believe that’s going to happen, and we have to prepare for it and we have to make everybody believe that we have a chance to go and show people what we’ve got. This season will always be drowned in some of the difficulties that we all know, and maybe there’s more down the road, who knows? But it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be ready and prepared, and ready to give our all. When Gary spoke to the players last night and when we spoke to them today, they were 100% committed to that. Whilst it’s a tough day and they’re all hurting – some more than others – they’ll all stand up and fight again, I absolutely believe that.”