It must be tempting for American soccer’s power brokers to imagine their sport returning to action before others during the coronavirus pandemic.
Imagine how many eyeballs and dollars would come to soccer if it resumes before baseball, basketball and hockey. Imagine soccer being the only American team sport on live TV.
(Imagine, by the way, how desperately Major League Baseball craves that kind of stage.)
Or imagine something even more dramatic: the NWSL returning before all the big men’s sports leagues. Imagine sports-starved fans having to choose between watching Megan Rapinoe and Crystal Dunn in prime time, or watching no live sports at all. No Phillies, no Yankees, no Flyers, no 76ers — just professional women’s soccer.
Are you salivating, or are you terrified?
Either way, you can come back to reality now. No American soccer league is anywhere close to playing games again, because the decision makers are smarter than that.
“Whoever’s first is going to get an uptick, but I honestly think that lasts for a week, or a day, or a news cycle,” Seattle Sounders general manager Garth Lagerwey said. "I think it’s far more important to take the long-term view, and have the best interests of your players, your fans and your staff at heart. That’s what we’re going to do, and I think that’s why there’s maybe not a race in terms of coming back for MLS.”
As of now, MLS and the NWSL are only letting players access team facilities to train individually on teams’ fields. There is an exception in the NWSL on some forms of training for teammates who live together. But anything more than that is banned through at least May 15. Players who don’t live together can’t even pass a ball to each other.
The USL will allow players in its professional men’s minor leagues to work in small groups, no more than four, starting Monday. USL president Jake Edwards said that the leagues can do it only because many of their players live in small groups in their markets, under housing assistance plans offered by the organization. (As with any minor-league sport, most USL salaries are fairly low.)
“They’ve already been living together and sort of self-quarantined already,” Edwards said. “It’s the roommates that get to train together.”
Anything that happens can only happen if local laws permit it. While a few teams have gotten clearance from their leagues, the Union are one of many that have not.
“We want to provide our fans the sport they love, and we want to be back playing, but it must be done in a way that is responsible first and foremost to health: the health of our players, employees, and fans,” Union president Tim McDermott said. “We are all working around the clock to try and get answers and put protocols in place that will allow us to start playing and maintain safety.”
While MLS and the USL had just started their seasons when the pandemic hit, the NWSL wasn’t to start until mid-April. There was much to anticipate, including a new TV deal with CBS and Sky Blue FC’s move to Red Bull Arena. Sky Blue also moved their practices to the New York Red Bulls’ training facility in Whippany, N.J., and got their own locker rooms and meeting spaces there.
For now, though, Sky Blue must wait. General manager Alyse LaHue said that because of New Jersey’s emergency declaration, the team does not have state approval for individual training.
In theory, LaHue doesn’t have to go far to get it. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy and his wife, Tammy, are part of the team’s ownership group. Tammy serves as the team’s chairperson. But the Murphys have far more important work to do these days, trying to contain the pandemic and slow one of the nation’s highest death rates. LaHue is fine with waiting until the time is right.
“We’ve already started contingency plans, and planned along with the Red Bulls to train at the same location,” she said. “We want to make sure it’s safe to return to the field in any capacity.”
For now, the team has doubled down on its online presence, using Zoom to hold events for fans. There have been Q&As with players and coaches, and even trivia nights hosted by LaHue to “try to have that sense of community that we’re not able to have in person right now.”
The collective spirit of America’s soccer leagues is the polar opposite of the world’s most famous league, England’s Premier League. Over there, the sport has been paralyzed by team owners squabbling with each other. Some clubs refuse to play at neutral sites, while some want the season ordered done as happened in France. Premier League CEO Richard Masters doesn’t have the iron fist power of an American-style commissioner.
If anything unites the factions, it’s a fear of losing money from the Premier League’s mammoth TV deals — so big that just the games left this season are worth $1 billion, according to the Associated Press.
“Yes, it is partly about the money,” Crystal Palace chairman Steve Parish wrote in an op-ed for England’s Sunday Times newspaper. “And we should all care about the money.”
They certainly have a history of it. Fifteen of the league’s 20 club ownership groups have net worths above $1 billion, including Crystal Palace’s — which is led by the 76ers’ Josh Harris and David Blitzer.
Some players care more about their health than their teams’ bank accounts.
“The majority of players are scared because they have family, they have children, they have babies," Manchester City star Sergio Agüero told a Spanish TV network at the end of April. “It does scare me.”
Atlanta United president Darren Eales has an especially clear view of the contrasts between countries. The England native came to the U.S. for college, then worked at West Bromwich Albion and Tottenham Hotspur before moving to Atlanta.
“You don’t have that central power [in England], and therefore everybody’s obviously got their individual view,” he said. “With MLS, I would say that the ownership does a great job of thinking of what’s good for the league, even if that might individually, for a certain club, not necessarily be to their benefit.”
Teams aren’t taking chances. When a TV station in Vancouver caught two Whitecaps players in a pickup soccer game at a locked city park this week, the team forced the duo into a 14-day quarantine. One of them, star forward Yordy Reyna, had to write a public apology.
“We have to be the role models,” Whitecaps sporting director Axel Schuster said. “It’s even more important now where everybody gets a feeling that things are reopening a little bit, and you’re looking to the right and the left — Europe and the U.S. — and everybody maybe gets a little bit more lazy."
Sounders manager Brian Schmetzer was just as blunt in assessing the risk of resuming games soon.
“It would be ten times worse if we started, shut down, started again, and then had to shut down a second time,” he said. “I think that would be catastrophic.”
Lagerwey said he’d be fine with “a tortoise proposition: that slow and steady hopefully wins the race."
All of those perspectives have helped ease players’ nerves. Utah Royals forward Amy Rodriguez expressed a view heard often lately.
“I’m really hopeful that with safe practices, and really good protocol and safety guidelines, we’re going to be able to get back on track,” said Rodriguez, a former star of the U.S. national team and the old Philadelphia Independence. “Whether you’re a soccer player in Utah, or a health-care worker, or there’s mom and dad at home in whatever state, this is really scary. It’s all over the world and surrounding us.”