COVID concerns loom as Crew begins MLS Is Back tournament

Chris DeVille
Members of the Columbus Crew, wearing shirts and masks with messages about race, stand on the field before an MLS soccer match Wednesday, July 8, 2020, in Kissimmee, Fla.

“I’ll never forget the call,” Caleb Porter said. “It was 3 a.m. I was listening to Clive Brewer, our director of performance, and he said we have a positive.”

In an online press conference Wednesday ahead of the MLS Is Back tournament, the Columbus Crew SC head coach recalled the moment he learned one of his players had tested positive for COVID-19.

Porter took the call from Brewer in the early hours of Thursday, July 2. The Crew had been inside the tournament “bubble” at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando for four days, preparing for the ad hoc competition that will restart an MLS season postponed by the pandemic in March after just two weeks of play. “We think he came in with it,” Porter said of the player who tested positive. “We don’t have any reason to believe that he got it in the bubble, but you just never know.”

The infected player, whose identity has not been revealed for privacy reasons, was moved to a different hall to quarantine separately from the rest of the Crew. Porter convened the team remotely, explained the situation, and called off training for Thursday and Friday. “We were kept in our rooms for a day and a half, and we had to test twice negative before we could get out and start practicing again,” Crew captain Jonathan Mensah said during Wednesday’s press conference.

“Our whole club isolated for basically 48 hours,” Porter said, “and I think that was a real key to us not getting any more positives.”

By Saturday, the Crew was back to training together, ramping up toward their first MLS Is Back match against in-state rivals FC Cincinnati on Saturday, July 11. (It kicks off at 10:30 p.m. and will air on FS1.) In the time since that first positive test, no other players or staff have tested positive, and the infected player has not exhibited symptoms. “He’s feeling good,” Porter said. “He’s healthy. He’s going through his protocol and the 14 days. So we expect to have him hopefully out and back with the team in three or four days from now.” 

Assuming that all holds true, it’s a major dodged bullet for Columbus. By comparison, FC Dallas withdrew from the tournament Monday after reporting nine positive tests. Thursday morning, Nashville SC also dropped out after nine players tested positive (no team outside of Columbus, Dallas and Nashville has registered a positive test). That could have easily been the Crew, too. “We’re really amazed that no one else has gotten this,” Porter said. “So that’s obviously the biggest win for us so far in this tournament.”

Instead, Columbus will participate in MLS Is Back as planned, albeit not at full strength. Beyond the player out with the coronavirus, Porter said “three or four guys” may miss the opening match or see limited minutes due to injuries suffered in training this past week. “I think we have a good plan for squad rotation in the first two games,” Porter said. “The first game you’ll see who’s out. I’m not going to disclose that right now.” He seemed confident that the Crew will put up a fight no matter who starts Saturday: “We have a deep squad, much deeper than we did last year.”

Porter was already planning to rotate his starting lineups significantly in this tournament due to the quick turnaround between matchdays. In a format resembling the World Cup, the league’s 26 teams have been divided up into groups and will play three group matches, all of which count toward the MLS regular season standings. From there, the top 16 teams advance to the knockout rounds, culminating in a championship match Aug. 11. The winner gets a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League, a prestigious international competition.

MLS Is Back kicked off Wednesday with Orlando City SC’s 2-1 win over Inter Miami CF. Group stage matches will be televised daily through July 23, some of them at 9 a.m. in an attempt to court a European audience. As with many of the soccer leagues that have resumed play worldwide, there will be no fans in the stands.

Columbus is in Group E alongside Cincinnati, Atlanta United FC, and New York Red Bulls. Following Saturday’s resumption of the Hell Is Real rivalry, the Crew is set to play the Red Bulls on July 16 and Atlanta on July 21. It’s a tough draw, but after going undefeated in their first two matches prior to the shutdown, the Crew seems likely to hold its own. Porter said despite snags like the two days of self-isolation and a partially rained out training session Wednesday, Columbus is in as much of a rhythm as he could hope. “The group is feeling good,” he said. “Spirits are high.”

Mensah said he feels safe in the bubble and hasn’t noticed himself or his teammates playing more tentatively due to fear of the virus. “The style of the game, the way we play contact-wise, everything has been the same,” he said. “Because we’ve got all the information from doctors in the league and our club that there’s low risk when you’re out there on the field.” Off the pitch, they’re continuing to be diligent about social distancing.

As more and more days go by without a positive test, Porter said he’s becoming more confident that the tournament can proceed without an outbreak inside the bubble as long as everyone continues to follow the MLS protocols. “The longer that everybody’s negative, I do believe that everybody will be safe,” Porter said. Still, some anxiety naturally remains: “We’re all humans. None of us want to get sick.”