Two days before the start of its season-resuming summer tournament in Orlando, Major League Soccer was forced Monday to send FC Dallas home after 10 players and a coach tested positive for COVID-19.
All are believed to have carried the virus into the bubble at Disney World. They have been quarantined in a secluded portion of the Swan and Dolphin resort where MLS’s 26 teams are staying, and Dallas manger Luchi Gonzalez told ESPN on Sunday that everyone on the team has stayed isolated in individual hotel rooms.
“The decision to have them not participate in the tournament is in the best interests of everyone, of the Dallas players and the other 25 teams, and allows us to continue to manage the health and safety of our players while continuing to go forward with our plan,” MLS commissioner Don Garber told the Associated Press.
MLS decided last Friday to postpone Dallas’ opening game of the tournament, scheduled for Thursday at 10:30 p.m. against the Vancouver Whitecaps. Dallas was then to play the Seattle Sounders on July 15 and the San Jose Earthquakes on July 20 as its other group stage games.
"I'm disappointed, but I'm responsible for people's safety and I'm proud that the league made this decision," FC Dallas president Dan Hunt said.
Hunt said the team believed at first that “we could triage this the best we could to get to the point where we could play a match,” but the spread became too great.
Dallas said it will cooperate with MLS and local health officials in Florida and Texas to get the team back home as safely as possible.
FC Dallas was one of the first teams to arrive at the MLS bubble, landing on June 27. Hunt said that before his players and staff left town, they “tried to follow the rules as strictly as they possibly could."
“But it doesn’t mean that you don’t get it from food being delivered or you don’t get it from being in contact with a family member,” he said. When you take 30 professional soccer players and then your staff and then everyone else, there’s so many contact points, even in isolation.”
Hunt also pointed a finger at Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s minimal regulations on businesses and mask-wearing.
“I think it’s pretty obvious that Texas has been very wide open with their rules, and it was early for people to return to work, early for people to start going to gatherings,” he said. “I think Gov. Abbott did a great job instituting the mask rule recently -- I think we should have had that earlier ... The truth is, unfortunately, our laws were were way too wide open on this issue and I think you’re seeing it again across the south and into Arizona and even California.”
It’s unclear what will happen to Vancouver, Seattle, and San Jose. Group stage games will count toward the regular-season standings if the season resumes after the tournament, and it’s unclear what will happen on that front.
Garber told ESPN that the league “will have to work with Dallas on replacing the three regular-season games that they’ll miss, but we feel very strongly that the integrity of the tournament is in place. We knew all along that we’re going to have to manage a unique dynamic down in Florida, one in which we’ll have to be mindful of having to reschedule games due to weather and other things as they come up.”
MLS has faced increasing criticism from players and fans about forging on with the event, which will make the league the first in U.S. men’s team sports to resume games during the coronavirus pandemic.
Nashville SC, the Union’s second opponent in Orlando, and the Columbus Crew have also seen players test positive while in Orlando. Minnesota United had a player test positive at first, then a second test came back negative.
In all of those cases, the players are believed to have contracted the virus before arriving in the tournament bubble.
Many other teams delayed their departures to Orlando out of hesitation.
The MLS Players Association said in a statement that forcing Dallas out of the tournament “is both responsible and necessary” by the league.
“The removal of FC Dallas from competition in Orlando is a reminder of how difficult the circumstances involving returning to work remain across all sports amidst this pandemic,” the statement said.
When the tournament was announced in early June, Garber said there was not a set number of positive tests that would force the tournament to be stopped. But on Monday, he told the Associated Press that he can’t rule the posibility out.
“If there is a situation at any time that I believe that the protocols aren’t working, and the health and safety of our players is at risk, then I will make the decision to shut down the tournament,” Garber said. “That is something I committed to the players and to our entire league early on. But this is proving that our protocols worked and our plan so far has been sound.”
MLS said Monday that of the 557 players currently in Orlando, 13 have been confirmed positive for COVID-19: 10 from Dallas and three from two other clubs that weren’t specified.