The best-laid plans often go awry, and that’s never been more obvious and apparent across the world than during the course of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic. Nashville SC headed to Orlando early this month in hopes of providing some sense of normalcy to sports fans. The MLS is Back Tournament… did not go off without a hitch.
First FC Dallas and then the Boys in Gold themselves were removed from the 26-team field as their positive tests for the novel coronavirus continued to mount – 11 and nine positives, respectively – from the Swan and Dolphin resort. The remaining 24 teams seem to have weathered the storm with minimal damage: the group stage concluded last night, with the 16-team knockout bracket beginning Saturday evening – and there were only two total positive tests from the rest of the field.
For Nashville SC head coach Gary Smith, watching the tournament unfold on the television set, rather than the touchline, has provided plenty of heartache. While the health and safety of all involved is paramount, the soccer side of things couldn’t be more painful.
“There’s not a worse feeling,” Smith said. “Everyone was ready to play: mentally prepared, physically prepared. We’d all got ourselves ready to go to Orlando, and really go for it and compete. I think the players, if you asked them, would certainly feel as though they were not offered or allowed the opportunity to show what they were about and how they’d prepared. For that, I’m sure they’re bitterly, bitterly disappointed.
“To watch the games, and to try and evaluate how we might have competed, it makes life even worse. I’ve looked at a lot of games and felt as though we certainly wouldn’t have been out of place. Even with the group in somewhat disarray, there were a lot of players in our group that I think were more than capable.”
Those in and around Nashville Soccer Club will always have questions about how the virus became so prevalent on their team, specifically. How was it introduced? Did it spread during team training in Music City before the squad headed down to Orlando? Were travel delays – and hours spent on buses – another factor that could have made matters worse? The reality is that the incredibly high rates of transmission of the disease globally, and the ineffectiveness of national and local response to the pandemic likely made it extremely difficult for NSC to do much about it.
Even a feeling of inevitability didn’t make hearing the bad news any easier when Nashville was withdrawn by Major League Soccer July 9. With 18 game-fit and virus-free individuals itching to play, the decision was devastating to all.
“When we were finally told we were being withdrawn from the tournament,” Smith explained, “especially as they were adamant as though they had enough bodies, they were in a good enough place physically to deal with the rigors of the games that were going to be thrown at us; I think they felt as though, the guys in isolation who were not well or who had tested positive, would be more than willing to come out of their restrictions and come and support the group again as soon as they could – it was a very, very deflating time, I’ve got to say. I think only by getting back home and being around natural and normal surroundings have the guys, emotionally, been able to get themselves back into a much better place.”
Fans and citizens around the country don’t have to think very far back to the early days of the pandemic, when stay-at-home recommendations were taken a little more seriously by politicians and public alike. A mandated version of that, and a beefed up version, constituted Nashville’s life in the bubble before the team returned to Tennessee in waves beginning July 13.
“it was really only under MLS guidance that we were able to leave our rooms, or the floor that we were on,” Smith explained. “For the most part, it was just for 20, 25 minutes a day for a walk for some fresh air. As the time progressed until probably just a couple of days before we left, they were able to find us a more secluded spot around the resort that we could go out for a couple of hours – socially distant – we were allow to sit outside, listen to some music, read a book. Guys had some very simple games and outside things that they could enjoy. But that was as good as it got.
“Food in your room. We didn’t eat together at all while we were there. So, you can imagine that for a group of people that spend their life in a team, and are together an awful lot, it was very difficult to spend so much time on your own. And of course just as importantly, to be inside and not outside. Losing fitness day-on-day, it was a hugely frustrating time for everyone.”
Getting back home, of course, wasn’t the end of the isolation for those who had been in Orlando. However, being in familiar environs – near family, even if unable to be in the same room, in some circumstances – made an easier transition back to some sense of normalcy.
“When we left Orlando and came back to Nashville, we had to serve out the remaining period of our quarantine,” Smith said. “Everyone would agree that if we could get back to either our own homes where it was possible for us to stay – I’ve got a guest bedroom which I stayed in for the remaining four days, and other guys that weren’t as fortunate, the club did a wonderful job of making sure that they could go somewhere that they could stay away from their family, children, parents, or whatever issues should there might have been should there have been a problem.”
Monday, the team was finally able to return to training after an emotional, frustrating – and scary – ordeal. Getting back onto the pitch is a relief for the Boys in Gold. Actually getting to prove themselves in a planned August return to regular-season play will hopefully wrap up the trying chapter in club history.
Dave Romney and Dan Lovitz certainly didn’t expect this upon arrival in Orlando. Photo courtesy Nashville SC/From file