Second ‘Caps Thoughts: The MLS is Back bubble might pop. Could the concerns have been avoided?

In this latest edition of Second ‘Caps Thoughts, our column for all things Whitecaps and MLS, we take a look at the impact that rushing things have had on the MLS is Back bubble, the ‘Caps prudent roster decisions for that tournament, and what the CPL could learn from this. 

After what has felt like a month of sprinting, the MLS is Back tournament has finally arrived. 

Now, in less than 24 hours (as of publishing), Inter Miami and Orlando City will take the field, as planned, to kick off the 26 team competition down at Disney World in Orlando. 

That’s not to say all has gone as planned, as, beyond that opening game, there is so much that is in flux right now. For starters, the 26 team competition has already become a 25 team one, as FC Dallas was forced to withdraw on Monday, July 6th, due to an outbreak of COVID-19 in their team that saw 9 players pick up the virus. 

Along with Nashville SC, who’s future is in doubt after they reportedly had an outbreak that has affected 5-8 players on their team, it could soon leave the tournament short 2 teams, which would certainly affect the integrity of a competition that has already had many question marks about that very aspect of its inception. 

It doesn’t mean that the tournament is dead in the water, far from it, but it certainly won’t be able to continue in its current format. 

As we’ve seen in the NWSL, the first North American sports league to return after COVID-19, they have been able to start their Challenge Cup tournament on time, even despite losing the Orlando Pride shortly before the tournament kicked off, as they faced an outbreak situation similar to what FC Dallas faced. 

One key difference between the 2 leagues, however, is that the NWSL’s Challenge Cup was purely meant to be a World Cup-style competition, giving their players a chance to play in front of a soccer-hungry audience, whereas MLS’s tournament had regular-season implications, which thanks to the recent outbreaks, would certainly be foolish to keep now. 

So as a result, the ‘MLS is Back Cup’ awaits its fate, as the league decides what to do with its return. There’s no doubt that it will start on time, but after that, it’s anyone’s guess as to how this saga will end, as these past few weeks have surely given us an idea of. 

With more twists and turns than a drive down BC’s famed ‘sea-to-sky’ highway, if there’s one thing this MLS is Back Cup hasn’t been short of, it’s been drama, and now hopefully, with it about to start, that drama transfers to the pitch, putting all of this behind us. 

The MLS rushed things, and they may now pay the price

But at the same time, we cannot pretend that these sorts of roadblocks were not predictable. While we were not expecting teams to pull out after significant outbreaks, we did already have concerns about how the health of players and staff was going to be handled, so by extension of that, it makes these sorts of outbreaks less surprising. 

And all of those issues are connected. The big problem with this tournament has not been how it has been planned, or the intentions behind it, but the fact that it was way too rushed by MLS, who have raced along in their quest to get their league back on the field. 

While that sort of pressed initiative could be praised in many other circumstances or professions, when it comes to this pandemic, rushing things was never going to be a good option, as the league has surely started to realize. 

Especially when your hub city is Orlando, at the heart of an American outbreak resurgence, and things we’re already going to have to be close to perfect. The ‘bubble’ was going to have to be airtight, both for the sake of outside staff and for people inside of the hub, which wasn’t the case from the get-go, giving us concern #1. 

From there, concern #2 quickly materialized, which was the lack of a clear arrival plan, leading to these outbreaks. First, it was Dallas, now it was Nashville, giving us what we have now. 

The thing is, it’s not the outbreaks that are the problem, but the arrival plan, as both teams arrived mere days before their opening games, then tested positive, forcing postponements. Now, the tournament’s already staggered schedule got a lot more staggered, making an already congested competition a puzzle of mismatched scheduling. 

Had there been a clear protocol in place, making it mandatory for teams to all arrive at once, and then spend at least 10-14 days in the bubble before their first game, a lot of this could have been avoided, as teams could have made sure they were virus-free before commencing game action. 

As seen by American Soccer Analysis, it’s not surprising to see teams bring COVID into the bubble despite several earlier rounds of negative testing in their home cities, as the virus can sometimes only materialize in a person towards the end of a 10 to 14 day period. 

So instead of having teams arrive at the bubble, spend 24 hours in isolation while tests came through, and then integrate in it as normal, as has been the case so far, they should have made teams arrive earlier, isolate for that 10 to 14 day period, and then proceed with the bubble. 

Especially for some of these American teams, who find themselves in cities facing exponential increases in virus numbers, it’s easy for one player to pick it up and spread it, as we’ve seen in the cases of Dallas and Nashville. Yes, Orlando is not an ideal ‘COVID safe spot’ either, but at the very least, the risk of contracting COVID should be mostly reduced inside of the bubble, at least theoretically, especially if proper arrival protocol was put in place. 

And that’s not to say that these players brought the virus from their markets, either, as it’s also quite likely that the plane, the airport or their bus to the bubble all could have been reasons for these outbreaks. We just don’t know yet, but without conclusive information, we can only speculate possible theories. 

But not to be a complete downer, aside from those concerns, the bubble has seemed to have done its job. The other teams have been healthy, despite regular testing and the other outbreaks, so we’ll keep our fingers crossed that it remains that way, especially for the latest arrivals. 

What’s frustrating, however, is that a lot of the other stuff has felt avoidable. Now, with a team already missing, it’s going to likely have to force the MLS to change its plan of making the group stage games count for the regular season, and will certainly take away a bit of value from the Champions League spot on the line for a winner. 

Now, with a team and other important individual participants missing, as several key players such as Nedum Onuoha, Fredy Montero, Lucas Cavallini and Carlos Vela have opted to sit out this tournament in order to keep their families safe, it will remove some shine off of this competition. 

That’s not to say this won’t be an entertaining tournament, as missing players is always going to happen at all levels of sports, for a multitude of reasons, but the missing team is especially going to be damaging, especially considering how it affects the aforementioned incentives that have been rendered either useless or have been devalued.

So for now, fingers crossed that everyone who has made it there stays safe, and that things go off without a hitch. But at the same time, considering that things have been rushed, as we’ve seen so far, that leaves the possibility of cracks, so hopefully none of those potential cracks affects the health of players or staff much more than what we’ve seen so far, allowing these games to go ahead as planned. 

‘Caps reveal Orlando roster, several key players wisely elect to stay home

The ‘Caps line up for a team picture ahead of a preseason friendly against Minnesota in February (Keveren Guillou)

In other news, the Whitecaps revealed their Orlando Roster on Tuesday morning, giving people an idea of who actually travelled down to Orlando on Monday afternoon.

The big surprise, however, isn’t who is going, but more so who isn’t, as the club announced that record-signing Lucas Cavallini, fellow (TAMed down) DP Fredy Montero, Tosaint Ricketts, Andy Rose and Georges Mukumbilwa would all be staying home for a multitude of reasons. 

For Cavallini, Montero and Rose, it was a personal choice, as they all have young families at home. Cavallini said in a statement that he’s had some loved ones affected by the virus, so he’d prefer to stay home and stay safe, with Montero citing a similar reason, saying that he wants to protect his wife and kids by staying home. 

As for Rose, his wife is expecting a child in less than a week, so he opted to stay in order to be there when she delivers, without having to self-isolate or anything, which would have been the case had he travelled to Orlando and returned. 

With Ricketts, he has a pre-existing health condition that is keeping him out, which is why he and the medical staff made the decision to stay home. 

And to round things off, Mukumbilwa is staying home as he is still only a permanent resident of Canada, making him unable to travel down to the US, which will be the case until he gets a Canadian passport or appropriate work visa. 

All-in-all, it’s a tough hit for the roster itself, but the players have our full support. In this pandemic, it isn’t easy to potentially put your family at risk, so hat tip to the players for making a tough decision and stay home. 

In Mukumbilwa’s case, it’ll be tough for him, as he’s not staying for a health concern or family decision, but hopefully he can clear that up eventually, as he’s an exciting prospect to watch for the future.

There is a silver lining in this for several of Mukumbilwa’s fellow academy graduates, however, as they will certainly be in line for plenty of game time down in Orlando. With there being only a 23 man roster, and the possibility of 5 subs, youngsters Simon Colyn, Theo Bair, Damiano Pecile, Patrick Metcalfe, Michael Baldisimo and Ryan Raposo will be primed for some key minutes.

This news does certainly create questions, as it does make you question the safety of the bubble when players are forced to stay home for health risks, but alas, it’s good to see those players err on the side of caution. 

Hopefully, the 23 players (and staff) that do go stay healthy, and we can see the whole roster together again sometime in the future. 

The CanPL isn’t rushing things, but have they waited too long?

Up in Canada, where things have remained a lot safer than the US, there is still no news about a CPL return, much to the surprise of many. 

Obviously considering the MLS’s struggles in putting their tournament together, it has been a wise decision to take things slower, but at what point does it get too long? The CPL could really stand to use the exposure a return-to-play would provide them, and unlike leagues like the MLS, they could safely do so without putting their players at risk. 

Given the low caseload across the country, a hub city solution (with proper protocol) has the potential to be a huge hit for fans, who’d likely be treated to some good football, without the worry that the MLS’s Orlando tournament has brought about. 

But despite those factors at play, the CPL has remained quiet, at least since they released a statement of intent about a month ago. They’ve been prudent, maybe too much so, but at least they’re keeping safe, training and preparing for whatever they do decide. 

There are questions to be answered, especially about a potential timeline, especially considering it’s nearly mid-July, which would make a mid-August return likeliest, making it a bit later than you would have expected for the league. 

Either way, it might be wise for them to do something, soon, as the statement has left fans restless. Had they not released it, they would have probably had more time, but at a certain point, they’ve got to provide an update, before their patient fanbase starts to turn. 

They’ve got the tools for a restart, so hopefully, we see some news sooner than later, and they can enjoy a safe restart, one free of the drama we’ve seen down in Orlando. 

Looking Forward

Now, it’s going to be an interesting couple of weeks, both for the MLS and the CPL, as one league gets back underway, and the other one (likely) gives us a plan for their restart. 

As we’ve seen in MLS, rushing things would not be wise, so let’s hope that the CPL is just being extra prudent, and that their return-to-play plan is flawless and prioritizes the safety of their players and staff. 

But as we await that, it’ll be interesting to keep an eye on MLS, who are at an interesting impasse. The first priority will be the safety of the players, so hopefully that remains the case, and then we can enjoy some nice football. 

The bubble is at risk of piercing, which is a risk, but if it doesn’t, and this just ends up being nothing but a tough start, then we can look back on this tournament with a sigh of relief. 

That isn’t yet entirely confirmed to be the case yet, however, so for now, we’ll keep a careful eyes, with our fingers crossed that everyone stays safe, and see how things go down in Orlando, as things get underway this week. 

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