Ideally, the Union would just be getting ready for another soccer game this week.
There would be the usual schedule of practices, workouts, and team meals, then a flight the day before the upcoming game against the New England Revolution, and the usual routine at the hotel. Players and coaches would study the standings, with the Union (2-1-2, 8 points) and Orlando City tied for third place in the Eastern Conference.
But no matter how badly anyone wants to get back to normal — and no matter how badly Major League Soccer craves the sponsorship and TV revenue that come from resuming the regular season without a bubble — it’s impossible to ignore the coronavirus pandemic’s continuing impact. It won’t stop just because the Union and Revolution are playing Thursday (7:30 p.m., PHL17).
MLS is trying to do whatever it can to keep the virus at bay. All players and staff are tested every other day. Teams are traveling to and from their home cities on game days, and they’re using charter flights or buses. But simply by playing games in home markets, the risk of contracting the virus increases.
“No matter how you put it, it’s riskier, there’s no two ways about it,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “It’ll be a new experience for us to fly in, play, then come back in that same evening [and] try to do it in the safest way possible to avoid contact with others.”
Union captain Alejandro Bedoya couldn’t help noting that after the MLS Players Association spent years fighting for all flights to be charters, it took a pandemic to make it happen.
“We’re finally traveling the way we should have been,” he said in jest.
But he knows there’s nothing funny about the many COVID-19 cases in the USL Championship, the second division of American soccer. Seven teams have had positive cases recently, including three MLS reserve squads: the Union, the Los Angeles Galaxy, and Sporting Kansas City.
There won’t be any fans at Gillette Stadium on Thursday night, and that will be the case for the Revolution and the Patriots (both owned by the Krafts) through at least the end of September. New England and the Union are among the 22 MLS teams that aren’t allowing fans in the stands right now.
Four teams are: Orlando City, Sporting Kansas City, Real Salt Lake, and FC Dallas, which was the first team to resume its regular season.
“I wish we had fans in [attendance], but I think it’s the safe and smart thing that we don’t,” Curtin said. “It’s going to be unique that in some stadiums there might be some fans in, as we saw with Dallas [last week] — I think that’s a little bizarre and strange.”
Curtin remains unafraid to call it as he sees it.
“So much politically is on the line for different people, and obviously, we haven’t handled it the best as a country in certain areas,” he said. “There’s a lot of agendas, we’ll just say, and different reasons for having fans or not having fans in stadiums. But it’s not a good look, I don’t think, to have fans in stadiums now in some instances and not in others.”
He wondered if there will be “a little bit of an advantage” for some teams “based on whether people are catching a disease in your area or not.”
Curtin is also honest about not having all the answers.
"Just like everybody in the world right now, we're trying to adapt and adjust and make the most of the situation," he said. "But if I'm going to sit here and say I have the blueprint for success with this, I'd be full of it, as would, I think, every other one of the coaches in this league."
The good news is that no Union players have expressed a desire to not play or travel.