It is supposed to be a leading example of how sports can lift spirits and unite our dysfunctional country now embroiled in an uncontrolled pandemic that brought our inequities to light. Instead, MLS is Back has mirrored some of the same COVID-19 concerns and realities Americans see playing out in our daily lives. It begs the question. Is MLS back?
“Back” implies things will go back to normal. Normal is an unattainable word even under non-pandemic circumstances. But there is no normal now. There is no going back. Not for anyone in the world. No matter how much money you possess, nor how many medical experts you have on your team, no matter what precautions you take, or tests you administer. As we move forward with the first U.S. mens’ professional sports bubble, the new normal is a way of saying there is no paved path we are traveling together, we’re all forging this path together. No one really knows what they are doing because these are unprecedented times. We learn as we go. The bubble and its rules must evolve.
A bubble is only as strong as the forces that hold it together. There are forces that push against a bubble. You can think of Florida and the general chaos their public health system is facing as the outside forces. You can also think of media entering the bubble (and exiting and entering) as outside forces. But there are forces equally as strong that have to keep it together in order for it to maintain integrity. The forces holding it together must be unfixed yet sturdy, as the external forces are ever-changing. In that way, the MLS is Back bubble is no different than the bubbles we create in our lives at home or at work right now. We also need to evolve as our knowledge of the virus evolves, same with our public policy.
All bubble components were finally in place yesterday when the final two teams arrived, cross-town rivals, LA Galaxy and LAFC. But while they were in mid-flight, impactful decisions were being made, decisions that now have lasting consequences, on future outbreaks or potential infection clusters. The MLS Bubble had to face their first real crisis, admit it encountered its first outbreak. While it is clear, based on testing results and timeline, that this cluster began in Texas (likely with asymptomatic transmission), it is also clear how rapidly it spread within FC Dallas. They arrived on June 27th and promptly began posting practices on social media on June 28th, presumably after their first round of bubble PCR testing came back. But, as SARS-CoV-2 has a 2-12 day incubation period, there is no guarantee of capturing an infection at the threshold of detection. The virus was in all likelihood replicating silently within close contacts(teammates), but it is also possible that different teammates were infected by different sources before traveling asymptomatically. In either case, the question is now, did FC Dallas players spend with other teams before each positive test result was being isolated? Or did they abide by the rule that teams are not permitted to have contact with each other? We already know typical public health quarantine procedures were not followed because they don’t apply to tournament rules of practicality. Meaning, you can’t be sure of the entire team’s status until 12-14 days after the last positive test result. The most safe choice at this point was what MLS opted for, the withdrawl of FC Dallas from the tournament.
Meanwhile, Nashville SC, now in the bubble, are awaiting their fate, which could be similar to Dallas’. Nashville’s first match, the original scheduled opening match, is postponed to a TBD date. Nashville’s last training session was June 30. due A player reportedly tested positive prior to leaving for Orlando, forcing the club to cancel travel plans last Wednesday. Instead they finally received approval to fly on Friday, July 3rd, a mere 5 days before their first match. Had the 7-day rule been invoked immediately, that alone would have necessitated a postponement of their match against Chicago Fire. However, the story of a potential team outbreak was just beginning to unfold, again within the Orlando bubble. Two Nashville players tested positive over the holiday weekend, and three more tested positive on Monday. Four more Nashville players are currently awaiting further testing after receiving inconclusive test results. The tournament starts without them tomorrow.
Nashville hasn’t been the only team to face the testing challenges. The Vancouver Whitecaps and Montreal Impact also fell behind in their pre-travel testing requirements. Similar to how life works outside the bubbles, delays and inconclusive results will happen within the team bubbles and the MLS bubble. I’m not trying to burst your bubbles, because this tournament is happening no matter what. At this point, nothing short of a large multi-team outbreak, a bubble community-transmission, will stop it. And that isn’t a bad thing. It’s just reality. Teams may fall off due to internal viral transmission, but that is part of this new normal. It’s not a true bubble. But it is as close to one as they can get for now. Multiple bubble can fuse, bubbles can also split off and leave. But you cannot accurately define the contents of the bubbles if that is the case. I like to think of this as an ecosystem, an MLS ecosystem slowly building. It was never going to happen perfectly all at once. By the middle of the tournament, barring any major outbreaks like what I have mentioned above, it will be functioning more smoothly. But, let’s face it, many teams just arrived recently and are not out of the 2-14-day period of asymptomatic transmission. Two weeks quarantine in a smaller bubble as a team before entering the larger bubble would have caught the first and second crises we see now I predict more true positives will creep up on us over the next week, maybe more team clusters. But the danger period will pass. Then we get to see how well this MLS bubble actually works. Is MLS back? Kind of. If we can all agree to be patient with this idea of engineering a self-sustaining ecosystem as it builds. The worst part for me will be to see a safe bubble finally burst when it’s all over and they join the rest of us facing far more harsh realities.
Featured Image: Courtesy of Inter Miami CF