The Union on Monday joined the ranks of teams allowed by MLS to hold individual player workouts, with a twist that got them around Delaware County’s code-red coronavirus status.
Instead of training at their fields in Chester, the team is using the outdoor soccer field at the 76ers’ multisport facility in Wilmington. It’s a familiar venue for the team, as it held the first week of preseason practices on the facility’s indoor turf field. (Also, the venue’s management company, BPG Sports, is run by some of the Union’s minority owners.)
But here, too, there is a catch: Delaware instructs all out-of-state visitors to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival, save for employees of essential businesses or people caring for a family member.
Damian DeStefano, director of the Delaware state government’s Division of Small Business, said the Union asked for and received an exemption from the mandate.
“The team presented the state with a request for an accommodation with an accompanying detailed safety plan,” he said. “The state reviewed the request and approved the accommodation.”
MLS allows teams to hold workout sessions for individual players under a strict health and safety protocol if teams get approval from local authorities. The training sessions are literally individual — each field used is divided into quadrants, with one player in each quadrant. Players can work out with a ball but cannot pass to each other or to anyone else.
The Wilmington facility has one full-sized turf soccer field. It was divided into 35-by-55-yard portions, with 5 yards between each grid. As players did various drills, an assistant coach stood in the middle of the field keeping time.
Access is tightly restricted to players and a limited number of team staff who must be listed to the league office. No one else is allowed to be there, from the team to media to fans.
Each player had to arrive in his own car, which required some logistical work for those from foreign countries who might not have them. But they were taken care of, as were any worries about Delaware police stopping players as they turned off I-95.
“I told myself I’d try not to use the word ‘normal’ during this crazy time, but [it’s] a return to what the players recognize," Union manager Jim Curtin said after the team’s first day of activities. "Yes, it was a unique environment and setup, but everybody [was] really anxious and excited to be back.”
Three players are still out of town: defenders Ray Gaddis and Aurélien Collin, and midfielder José Martinez. All three absences are excused. Curtin didn’t disclose Gaddis’ and Collin’s whereabouts, but Martínez’s location is no secret: He’s been posting regularly on Instagram from his temporary home in Miami.
“He has relatives down in Miami and his agent is there as well," Curtin said. “We thought that would be a better idea for him in terms of his development and growth than him being in King of Prussia by himself and isolated. There’s a human element to all this — I feel almost bad just talking about soccer because there are people that are going through a lot harder situations than me right now.”
Curtin added that when the players return to town, they will have to spend some time in quarantine before they can get on the field.
The human element has particular resonance with the Union. Jakob Glesnes and Jamiro Monteiro have newborn children, and Kacper Przybylko was the first player in MLS known to test positive for the coronavirus.
“We have a guy [Glesnes] that arrived from Norway, and the first experience is, you know, to play against LAFC and score an amazing goal — and then have the league shut down, and you’re in a foreign country with a newborn baby,” Curtin said. “That is something on the human level that not a lot of people can grasp or know what that feels like.”
MLS launched the individual player training protocol on May 6. Teams across the league have gotten approval in stages since then. The Union and Seattle Sounders joined the ranks on Monday, becoming the 18th and 19th teams to take the field.
Seven teams still aren’t cleared yet: the Chicago Fire, D.C. United, the Montreal Impact, the New England Revolution, New York City FC, the New York Red Bulls (based in northern New Jersey), and the San Jose Earthquakes.
The league has banned teams from doing anything more than the individual workouts through at least June 1, the date when the league hopes to have its teams travel to Orlando, Fla., for training and neutral-site games.