- Major League Soccer teams are competing in a “bubble” at Walt Disney World for the MLS is Back tournament.
- So far, the bubble plan has worked, showing that such setups are viable for leagues hoping to play through the pandemic.
- Players say they’re leaning on routine to stay focused during a season unlike any other.
- Steve Clark of the Portland Timbers and Shea Salinas of the San Jose Earthquakes spoke with Insider about “embracing the boredom” and what it feels like to score a goal without fans in attendance.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
“Welcome to summer camp” – that’s what it felt like to show up to the Major League Soccer “bubble,” according to San Jose Earthquakes winger Shea Salinas.
“It definitely feels like summer camp,” he told Insider.
Since early June, the teams have been in a World Cup-style tournament inside a bubble in Walt Disney World, similar to that adopted by the NBA. Players are away from their families, playing in front of empty seats in a tournament format that’s brand new to them.
It’s made for a summer unlike any other for the league.
“We’ve embraced the boredom,” Salinas said, adding that players are leaning on routine and playing games like darts and bingo together in their free time.
Putting the players inside the bubble was a big ask: It’s not easy to leave your family during a pandemic. But after a month, the league – as well as the National Women’s Soccer League – has proven that a bubble is a viable option for sports during the pandemic.
It’s an outcome that bodes well for the NBA as its season starts Thursday, and it also stands in stark contrast to the MLB, given the recent outbreak of COVID-19 cases in the Miami Marlins clubhouse.
“Everyone wants to perform,” Portland Timbers goalkeeper Steve Clark told Insider. “They don’t want to expose their team.”
The bubble has worked: Players say they feel safe
MLS’s plan to restart flirted with disaster before it even got off the ground: Two clubs – Nashville SC and FC Dallas – were forced to drop out of the competition due to outbreaks of COVID-19.
“There was a ton of uncertainty there at the beginning about whether the tournament would be played or how it would look,” Salinas said. “But to be honest, I think the league handled it really well. I think the protocols here are really good. We feel safe.”
Combined, the MLS and NBA bubbles in Walt Disney World’s Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, Florida, contain roughly 3,500 athletes and staff members, according to Yahoo Sports. The two leagues don’t interact, and even within the MLS bubble, each team maintains social distance from the others – each has their own floor in the hotel with a lounge area.
Players are in the bubble for the six-week tournament, and no partners or family members are allowed to join them.
As of Thursday, more than a month in, the MLS hasn’t seen any positive tests for more than two weeks. The bubble worked.
Salinas said he had confidence in the system even early on since the teams that suffered outbreaks appeared to have been exposed before reaching the tournament.
“There was never a case that was like, ‘OK, that person definitely got it while they were in the bubble,'” Salinas said. “It seemed like all of the cases were from travelling here or just before getting here. And so that made us all feel pretty safe.”
Clark offered a similar sentiment about a week into his stay.
“If it becomes clear that it’s going team to team, then that would be a different story,” he said
Clark credited his fellow players for taking the threat of the virus seriously.
“If you were here, you would kind of walk in and immediately be hit with, you might call it serious energy when you walk into the lobby,” Clark said, adding, “I think there’s a lot of professionalism going on is how I would put it.”
Routine offers a sense of normalcy for players
Clark has gotten used to sleeping in late.
“I basically wake up at 10 or 11, eat breakfast around then. Then we start our day of treatment, lifting, and team meals,” Clark said. “Then we train 6 to 8 p.m. at night, and then come back, eat dinner after that. I head to bed around 2 a.m. or so to try and keep myself on the time zone to be best ready to perform because all of our games are pretty late at night.”
The Timbers’ next game, in which they will face the New York City FC for a spot in the semis, starts Saturday at 10:30 p.m. ET. The team advanced to the quarterfinals after a late-night penalty shootout on Tuesday night that ended well after midnight.
Salinas and the Earthquakes have also stayed on West Coast time despite playing in Florida. He said having a regular schedule has made it easier to settle in and grow as a team.
“We’re in this routine now where we know when we’re eating breakfast, we’ve got routines during the afternoon,” Salinas said. “We’re growing a lot closer as a group of guys. As a team, we’ve got a bunch of goofy little games we’re playing every day. It keeps us close.”
There are video games, of course, as well as some more old-fashioned fun, he said.
“We got a dartboard. We’re playing a lot of darts,” Salinas said. “We play bingo every night after dinner. And then most recently, one of our teammates, Carlos Fierro, had us all buy little RC cars. So today, we’re having RC car races. We’re going to build a little obstacle course and have races and see who is the best driver.”
These wouldn’t be the entertainment options world-class athletes would choose outside the bubble, but given the circumstances, such comforts have helped the Earthquakes keep spirits high.
“We’re excited to be here. We’ve made it a fun experience,” Salinas said. “Of course I want to go home and see my wife and kids. But this is also fun. Win the tournament first.”
Playing games without fans comes with some difficulties
As soon as the first whistle blew, the familiarity of soccer took over, Salinas said.
“Getting to that first game was a big hurdle to jump, But once that game was played, everyone knew that this was happening regardless. We were playing,” he said.
In San Jose’s second match inside the bubble on July 15, Salinas scored a stoppage-time stunner to complete a comeback win for the Earthquakes. After trailing 3-1 with just 20 minutes to go, San Jose scored two late goals to draw level, then capped off the comeback victory with Salinas’ goal in the 98th minute.
BAY AREA LEGEND.
— San Jose Earthquakes (@SJEarthquakes) July 16, 2020
It’s the type of goal a player would dream about celebrating in front of the home crowd. Instead of the roughly 19,000 rabble-rousers that would ordinarily be going mad at Earthquakes Stadium, Salinas had to settle for the embrace of his teammates.
But he said he felt the impact of that goal in a new way.
“So many more people out of market saw the goal and were talking about the goal,” he said. “It just made me realise that even though we’re not playing in front of any fans, I feel like our audience is much bigger than what a regular season would be.”
Still, he noted, something is lacking when players walk out to the field.
“That initial adrenaline pump the first maybe 30 seconds of the game, or during the national anthem, when you look around, and you realise that you’re playing in front of that many people – that’s the only thing that’s missing,” he said. “Once you start playing, your competitive juices get going. You want to win the battle in front of you.”
In getting into that competition mode, the routine has also proved to be key.
“The game-day routine is still intact. We eat four hours before the game. We have our pregame talk. We do the exact same warm-up,” Salinas said. “Everything is the exact same as a regular game day.”
Clark and Salinas have found ways to appreciate the most surreal season in league history
Even with the many challenges that came with this MLS tournament – being away from family during a national emergency and focusing on playing at an elite level on top of that – players say they have grown, personally and professionally, from the experience.
“I’ve been enjoying my time here so far,” Clark said. “To be off from soccer and to come here – the fields are great, everything is set up to perform.”
Salinas said the unique format of the tournament was an exciting challenge.
“I’ve never been in a tournament like this,” he said. “Guys that have been in the World Cup or the Gold Cup have experienced this format as a professional. Just the pressure of each game, and being together as a team for this long. For me, it’s really cool to get a taste of what a World Cup or Gold Cup might look like.”
Does the future of American sports exist within a bubble?
Across the world, some fans are seeing sports start to return with a bit of normalcy. The English Premier League recently concluded its season without a bubble and is hoping to slowly reintroduce fans to stadiums for the next campaign. In September, we could see soccer stadiums in Europe filled to 25% capacity.
But with more than 150,000 people dead due to COVID-19 in the US and the virus continuing to spread, a similar return still feels a long way off here. Just four days after the MLB’s Opening Day,the Miami Marlins were forced to suspend their season temporarily after an outbreak of 17 cases within their clubhouse.
Washington Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle put it this way: “We haven’t done any of the things that other countries have done to bring sports back,” he told reporters earlier this month. “Sports are like the reward of a functioning society.”
The MLB is forging on with its season so far, but if more teams across the league suffer similar outbreaks, the difficulties of completing the year will compound.
The MLS hopes to resume its season in home markets in August, but given the MLB’s struggles, it’s possible the league might opt for a bubble again in the future.
“So far it seems like the tournament is successful,” Salinas said. “If COVID-19 continues to be an issue and the MLS needs to survive and have revenue, then I can see this happening again.”
But first, Salinas and the Earthquakes – fresh off securing a spot in the quarterfinals with a win over Real Salt Lake – have business to take care of in this bracket.
Four weeks into his stay inside the bubble, Salinas offered a bit of advice to other athletes facing an extended stay:
“Find a hobby. For me, I’ve used this opportunity to get better at something. I’m getting my MBA, so I’m trying to get ahead of all of my classes. Not just waste the experience with video games all day like some guys might have the tendency to do. I’ve used this opportunity to grow myself personally,” Salinas said.
“And also to balance that, have fun,” he added. “Get some RC cars. Get a dartboard.”
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