This story has been updated.
The arrival of the coronavirus in Southern California could lead to the Union’s game at Los Angeles FC on Sunday night being played behind closed doors. Though the odds seem slim, city officials in L.A. are not shying away from the possibility.
“If at any point we think that there is good reason for us to be worried about extensive community transmission, they have been alerted to the possibility that we may ask for modifications at large public events,” Barbara Ferrer, the Los Angeles County public health director, said at a news conference Wednesday. “This could be that games are played but there are no spectators. This could be that there are limits to how people are going to gather at public events.”
LAFC’s Banc of California Stadium is three miles from downtown Los Angeles, next to the famed Coliseum and near the University of Southern California campus. The crosstown Galaxy are also scheduled to play at home this weekend, against the Vancouver Whitecaps in suburban Carson.
Both games are bigger than usual. The LAFC-Union game will be nationally-televised (10:30 p.m., Fox Sports and Fox Deportes), and the Galaxy game is the home debut for Mexican star Javier Hernández. Sellout crowds are expected at each: around 22,000 at LAFC and 27,000 at the Galaxy.
There will be big crowds at sports events downtown, too: Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Bucks qill visit LeBron James’ Lakers on Friday night, the NHL Kings will host the Minnesota Wild on Saturday, and the Lakers will play the Clippers on Sunday. The two NBA games have national TV slots.
“I want to reassure everyone that we are not there today,” Ferrer said of forcing closed-door games. “What this is, is a call for preparedness. No surprises. Know what you might do should we see an explosion of cases, and we come back, and we suggest that public health strategies would have us do more extreme measures of social distancing."
California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency Wednesday, after the state announced its first death related to the virus. More than 50 people statewide were reported to be stricken.
The Union are scheduled to fly to Los Angeles on Friday afternoon. It’s not known whether they are flying charter, which would allow them to stay out of crowded commercial planes and airports.
Union manager Jim Curtin confirmed Wednesday that centerback Mark McKenzie did not suffer a concussion in his head-to-head collision with FC Dallas forward Zdenek Ondrasek on Saturday. The contact turned out to be not as bad as it looked.
“We’ll certainly err on the side of caution if there is ever a question of a player with a head injury and take them out,” Curtin said. “He never had to enter the concussion protocol.”
McKenzie is expected to play Sunday, and it is likely to be be his last game with the Union before Concacaf’s Olympic qualifying tournament. The U.S. Soccer Federation confirmed to The Inquirer on Thursday that the pre-tournament training camp starts Monday. While not all 20 players on the squad will arrive by then, expect many from MLS to.
The tournament, which takes place in Guadalajara, Mexico, kicks off March 20. The Americans are trying to reach the Olympics for the first time since 2008, and McKenzie badly wants to end the drought.
“It’s important for us to go into this tournament hungry, fired up, and ready to qualify," he said. "It’s been a while since the U.S. has been there, and we have a lot of quality on the team.”
In addition to McKenzie, midfielder Brenden Aaronson and goalkeeper Matt Freese are candidates to make the U.S. team.
Union captain Alejandro Bedoya wasn’t just thinking about himself when he put his signature on a contract extension through 2022 last week.
“My family has settled down here in Philly, my [oldest] kid is at that age where he’s going to school, so it’s important for us to feel that sense of security that we will be here, we can look for a good school for him to go to,” he said Wednesday. “I’ve made a lot of connections here in Philly [with] all the Philly fans. The Philly attitude, so to speak, everything about it, I think it suits me well.”
Bedoya said he isn’t affected by the Union paying his cap hit down so he isn’t a designated player anymore, which is understandable, since his salary isn’t changing much. But he knows the ramifications, since the Union have another DP slot open.
“We’ve got a young group here now, and my hope is that I’m able to lead them to be competitive,” Bedoya said. “It’s clear that we don’t have the budget like LAFC has. ... Maybe we fit somebody in more to improve from last year’s effort, but that’s not my decision — I think we have a good-enough team here to compete, to make the playoffs again, to get a home game, and to replicate last year’s season."