With the NHL poised to drop pucks in hub city arenas and conclude their season, MLB still playing pitch and catch with their players’ union about when their season will start and under what revenue-sharing terms, and NFL thinking kick-off this fall season, the leadership of Major League Soccer and Major League Soccer Players Association (MLSPA) is in the final stage of negotiations to reboot the 2020 season.
Two weeks ago, Burgundy Wave reported on the rumors about MLS teams training and playing in the closed-to-family-and-fans confines of the expansive ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex south of downtown Orlando. The rumored plans involved teams arriving in early June, with tournament-style play to kick-off later in the month and concluding about 10 weeks out.
Once these rumors hit the airwaves, many players, some staff, and even their respective families voiced their dissatisfaction. Of greatest concern was club members being away from their spouses, kids, and residences for such a long duration.
Since then, plenty of speculation by MLS media and fans about playing here or there, when and how the 2020 season will resume has been both postulated and argued over around the clock.
Outspoken statements by players about the rumored relocation of the League to Disney World have been made on all sorts of communication platforms both in the United States and Canada. And even accusations of proposed agreement details and plans being leaked to media have provoked the commissioner’s ire.
All of this could make for a fine Disney melodrama movie script.
Despite the broadcast of many player’s sentiments about not wanting to relocate and move into bubble accommodations at Disney World, this past Friday evening the MLSPA approved a proposal that would do just that, with teams arriving in Florida on June 24, followed by quarantine, then train and play.
The Athletic first broke news about the progress Saturday afternoon. ESPN soon followed suit. Last night the Washington Post reported that more headway was made between the MLSPA, MLS, and owners.
The Athletic’s report outlined the following:
- Teams would be in greater Orlando for a maximum period of six weeks.
- Teams would participate in training for a two-week period.
- Teams would play in three-game group stages.
- Teams would play in a knockout style rounds.
- Teams who failed to move out of the knockout rounds would return to their home complexes.
Concurrent with the MLSPA’s counterproposal, both the League and Players Association have been negotiating a modification to the recently ratified Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA): a player’s salary cut, a postponement of a revenue-sharing agreement, and possible enactment of a force majeure clause that is built into contracts. The clause gives a free pass to both parties from certain liabilities and obligations in the event of circumstances beyond the control of the participating parties. A nationwide spike in COVID-19 infections, nationwide order to sequester or heaven forbid, and full rebound of the pandemic this coming fall and/or winter are just examples end-all circumstances.
Late Sunday evening, the MLSPA reported that the players approved a package of financial concessions which eliminates one major hurdle to return to play. Ownership and the League will now vote on this component of the negotiations.
Both parties also negotiating towards an all-important agreement on the League’s coronavirus safety, testing, and health plan for full training and play, to resume.
Second to the family-first mindset that has been expressed by many players—and not wanting to be away from their families for weeks on end—player health and safety is paramount.
Rapids goalkeeper Clint Irwin spoke with both the Burgundy Wave and Denver Post last week. Irwin shared the pent up feelings of his teammates. “Every player on our team wants to get back playing as soon as possible and as safely as possible.” He continued, “we’ve all been off longer than any time in our careers and I think you can tell by the participation at the voluntary workouts right now, we’re all itching to get back out there.”
The reserved veteran discussed everyone’s heightened awareness of wellness, from staff members to their families to the players. No one wants to see this contagion infect them, a friend, or a loved one. Irwin cited how in the regular season, if/when a player came down with the flu, most others around that player would also succumb to the illness in some form and degree. The possibility of transmitting the coronavirus—both on and off the pitch—is high as players and staff work, socialize, and travel in rather close conditions.
Given the virulence of this virus, it is fair to say that players are not only thinking about this season but also long-term and their professional careers.
Denver Post reporter Jake Shapiro spoke with Rapids and rising U.S. Men’s National Team winger Jonathan Lewis about his perspective. He told Shapiro: “We’re in the middle of a pandemic, but I do think a lot of people would be excited to play, we’re all raring to go, but at the same time, we have to look out long term for our futures as players, our health, our families. You could be risking your life because if you catch this you don’t know what can happen later down the road or what kind of effects it can have on you.”
With such legitimate concern also comes both cautious and optimistic reality. Former Rapids and current Real Salt Lake keeper Zach McMath was recently asked by the Salt Lake Tribune about the proposed COVID-19 testing protocol and testing. MacMath said that “positive tests were ‘inevitable,’ but could present a problem. If that were to happen, we don’t know what the protocol would be for that, but it would definitely be something that everyone involved would have to be OK with.” MacMath added. “And if we can’t get everyone on board, I’m not sure how we can figure it out.”
COVID-19 prevention and blanket testing will be key
Rapids’ Irwin described how the MLSPA has consulted an epidemiologist and has been leveraging the CDC guidelines in their effort to address player’s concerns, wellness, and be in a strong position to negotiate terms and conditions of the protocols that will be employed.
According to a May 21 article in The Athletic, steps in the protocols would start 72 hours before a team lifts off for Orlando. Those traveling would be subjected to two COVID-19 RNA antigen tests, 24 hours apart, and one anti-COVID-19 serum antibody test. The antigen detection assay involves using a diagnostic laboratory procedure referred to Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), which amplifies the number of copies of the COVID-19 RNA found in the patient’s swab sample, thereby making it easier to be detected in the subsequent antigen detection assay. The same assays would be required of all MLS staff delegates and officials heading to Orlando. Thereafter, team representatives would be required to have an anti-COVID-19 serum antibody assay performed every three months.
Team members found to be positive for the COVID-19 RNA antigen would not be permitted to travel to Orlando. Instead, they would be quarantined. Club delegates who test negative for the antigen assay, however positive for the serum antibody, would be permitted to travel, only if they are asymptomatic.
Once arriving at their assigned Disney World accommodations, a seven-day quarantine period would start. Team gatherings would be prohibited. Staff and players would be subjected to daily basal temperature checks and wellness screening questionnaires. Players would workout in designated areas. Dining would be room service-based. Masks and social distancing would be required for the entire MLS delegation when the left their respective rooms. Delegates would not be allowed to not their hotels.
On the day prior to match day, both players and technical staff would be required to undergo testing again. A positive result would require isolation per the terms of the agreed-upon protocol. A fellow team member from the club’s roster would replace the isolated player.
Collaboration between MLSPA and League representatives is essential as threats of lockout loom
With still much on the negotiation tables and the ball now in the hands of the MLS Leagues officers to respond to the MLSPA proposals, plenty of work is still to be had by both the players, consultants, and union representatives.
Clint Irwin described it best during his call with the media. He has been keeping Rapids players abreast of all the facets of the negotiations via emails, group texts, and Zoom conference gatherings and players have been providing him with feedback. He then passes on their opinions to the Players’ Union negotiating team. The positive-minded Irwin said there are a variety of options and means to “collaborate” with League representatives.
During these negotiations, as well as during the recent CBA agreement, the threat of a lockout by the MLS has always existed. During most labor negotiations, talks of strike and lockout are often just ploys used by the respective parties to keep negotiations moving. For those who have been waiting on the edge of their seats for win-win agreements to be announced, hearing of a possible lockout can trigger a migraine.
Former Rapids star player and current ESPN soccer commentator, Hercules Gomez raised the anxiety level of many MLS followers with this tweet, posted late Sunday evening
I’m hearing @MLS has given @MLSPA till Tuesday noon to accept their final proposal. If they refuse the players would be locked out.— herculez gomez (@herculezg) June 1, 2020
I reached out to a high ranking official within the league who respectfully declined to comment.
With June 24th on the horizon, hopefully in the next few days both sides will iron out the remaining details and fans can take a deep breath and look forward to following their respective home team.
To that end, may the best team win the MLS 2020 Disney World Cup sooner rather than later.