KISSIMMEE, Fla. — After 30 days inside the bubble at the MLS is Back Tournament, I promise I have not lost my mind yet! But I did want to provide some perspective on what life has been like not only for myself but also for the players, coaches, team staff, match officials and league employees, all of whom have essentially lived under the same “roof.”
Pre-tournament: My decision to attend MLS is Back
I had mixed emotions when I received the assignment as ESPN’s only reporter inside the MLS bubble. Part of me was unsure about traveling during a pandemic, especially with the fact that I have a wife and 6-month-old daughter at home from whom I would be away for over six weeks. But while it is true that that separation has proved the hardest thing to deal with, my family’s concerns were put at ease with the safety precautions and regulations: COVID-19 testing every other day, daily temperature checks, hand sanitizer available throughout the property, masks on at all times and signs requiring social distancing.
The experience arriving was, in a word, eerie. When I landed, a driver appointed by MLS arrived to pick me up because no rental cars are allowed on the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Resort premises. I walked into a virtually empty lobby with my bags and remember thinking to myself, “Am I in the right place?”
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I checked in and dropped my bags off in my room, then went back downstairs to begin the four-minute walk to the COVID-19 testing center in the hotel’s ballrooms. Let me tell you: My first nasal swab test, which was performed in both nostrils, was very, very uncomfortable. “The key is to tilt your head back,” I was told. Nurse Monica was right, and I’ve been following that amazing advice ever since.
I returned to my room to quarantine for at least 12 hours until the results of my test were in. It was during this time when we received the now (in)famous boxed lunches that went viral on social media. To clear up the social media nonsense, that food was from the only menu we could use during quarantine. We had plenty of other, better options after that first night.
The next morning, I learned that I tested negative — a big relief after being on my first flight in four months — and headed back down to the ballroom to get my second nasal swab test. Then it was off to work.
Week 1: Uncertainty and tension
The first week was a really difficult time. Within a few hours of beginning our first workday, we received reports that four FC Dallas players had tested positive for COVID-19. Later that night we had word of two more positives, one coach and one player. That began a period of anxiety inside the bubble to some extent. I spoke to San Jose Earthquakes veteran Chris Wondolowski during that time and he painted a responsible yet optimistic picture.
“Yeah, I think we really have to stick to our floors. Not go off very far,” he said. “Training, testing, dining room and back upstairs. I’ve really made sure the younger guys are following the protocols and being safe. We want to play soccer, and we know we need to be healthy to do that.”
However, other players who spoke on the condition of anonymity didn’t share Wondolowski’s positive outlook.
“Is this thing spreading in here?”
“I’m not leaving my room unless I have to.”
Those were two of the text messages I received from players during that first week, when there were only six teams or so inside the bubble. The fear of the unknown was clearly there. Minnesota United goalkeeper Tyler Miller summed it up best in an interview with ESPN on July 2.
“It’s been challenging, to be honest,” he said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty; every day we wake up and we’re not sure what’s going to happen. We don’t know whether there’s going to be a case on our team, there’s going to be other cases on people we’ve been in contact with. So trying to manage that, mentally, I think, is very challenging for a lot of guys that I’ve spoken to from around the league here.
“So we’re really trying to be as safe as we can here, but at the same time, we understand that we’re in this secluded environment that is supposed to be safe for us, but now there are a handful of cases here and there’s only six or seven teams here. So we’re really unsure what’s going to happen when all 26 teams do get here and we actually have every single person in MLS here.”
When Nashville SC arrived, five of their players tested positive. During this time, we really did not see players around the bubble. The pool was empty. The games and activities around the property went unused.
After a full week of intense reporting, we were able to make contact via Zoom with FC Dallas head coach Luchi Gonzalez. He explained that at that point, soccer was on the back burner and that his only concern was to get his players healthy. We confirmed that it was nine players and one coach who had tested positive for COVID-19. All 11 patients (10 players, one coach) were isolated in a separate wing of the hotel and kept there until they received two consecutive negative test results. On July 6, MLS made it official: FC Dallas was withdrawn; Nashville met the same fate three days later.
The announcement of the expansion club’s departure came a day after the tournament began. Even then, some teams — like the New York Red Bulls, Vancouver and Toronto — were delayed in arriving due to concerns about their final rounds of testing. Toronto’s late arrival pushed its first match, against D.C. United, back by two days. But that was not where the drama between these teams ended, as we discovered just before the ESPN morning game window on July 12.
We arrived at around 7:15 a.m. to prepare for our broadcast. Our normal operating procedure is to head to the media hub at ESPN Wide World of Sports, where we conduct pregame interviews, but this time producer Jim Witalka and I were told they would be done on the field instead. We got into position to wait for D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen, just moments after the club’s public relations representative told us he was on his way. We observed as the United goalkeepers came out for warm-ups and the assistant coaches set up equipment for the outfield players.
A few moments later, the goalies left the field and the equipment staff quickly picked up the cones and practice jerseys. That’s when we got the sense something strange was going on; minutes later, we confirmed the match had been postponed because Toronto had an inconclusive test and never left the hotel. We reached out to MLS deputy commissioner Mark Abbott, who explained the situation further.
What does an inconclusive test mean? According to MLS testing protocol, to be confirmed positive, a person must test positive twice in a 24-hour period. If someone tested positive, they were immediately tested again to either confirm the positive or to rule out the inconclusive positive. The results inside the bubble were taking anywhere from 10 to 12 hours to be turned around.
The situation caused confusion and anger on the part of D.C. United. As players walked back to the bus, you heard groans and comments such as, “How aren’t they going to tell us this was happening before we came over here?” and, “We just want to play, damn it.” The game was finally played the following morning, with a hotly contested 2-2 draw ending with both teams coming together and plenty of foul words exchanged near the DCU bench.
“From their side, we’ve gotten a real sense that they’re all pissed off and angry that we showed up late,” said Toronto midfielder Michael Bradley. “Almost feeling like we’re trying to cheat the system or get a leg up on everybody, and that obviously couldn’t further from the truth.”
Given that we were all living in close proximity, we were alert to the prospect of any bubble-on-bubble crime; thankfully, things didn’t escalate further.
Week 2: Protocols and routines
In these unprecedented times, we really didn’t know what to expect. It seemed like COVID-19 was threatening the MLS is Back Tournament, and we asked about it several times during our second week in central Florida. The answer we got from the league was always consistent, though, because they continued to trust in their protocols. Credit where credit is due: It worked.
MLS was confident that the positive cases with FC Dallas and Nashville SC originated outside the bubble, and if they could contain them, everyone inside should be safe. Despite the clear risks, they moved forward, and as of Aug. 2, we stand at 11 consecutive rounds of testing with zero positive cases.
Dallas and Nashville were eventually able to leave safely after those affected were cleared, and since then the tournament has continued without issues and with lessening anxiety and fear of the unknown. Routines normalized as training sessions were occurring with no hitch, team dinners were held at the four signature restaurants inside the resort, and activities around the property such as the swimming pool, Teqball, soccer pool and beach volleyball became popular.
As a gamer, I decided to bring my PlayStation to the bubble. Here I was thinking that I’d be one of very few who would bring their gaming systems. Boy, was I wrong! I’d say about 80% of players I spoke to upon their arrival told me gaming would be a big part of their routines. FIFA Tournaments, Call of Duty: Warzone and Fortnite were some of the most popular games among players. I played COD with a few members of Sporting Kansas City and Minnesota United, and let me tell you, I have some training to do when I get home!
For those players who didn’t bring their systems, each team has a players’ lounge on its floor that consists of three connecting rooms. The first is a pingpong room, the second has poker, darts and other table games, and the third is set up for video games, decked out with customized leather gaming chairs branded with club logos in the headrest. They also have an old-school Pac-Man arcade machine.
“Our [darts] games have gotten pretty heated,” Wondolowski said. “We were acting like the fans at those major dart events in Europe. I hope we don’t get a noise complaint!”
Outside, we observed some emotionally charged beach volleyball contests too. Some members of the Portland Timbers, for example, celebrated akin to scoring a goal after one Diego Valeri game-winning spike!
Not surprisingly, the four available pools were the most used amenities and ideal to maintain social distancing, as players got priority when it came to choosing the spot they wanted. The Cabana Bar, meanwhile, was the spot to go at night if one needed an after-work nightcap.
Week 3: Focus on soccer
As time passed, the vibe was much more peaceful, but more importantly, soccer was at the forefront of conversation.
“It’s something that we’re taking very seriously because we know this could be our only opportunity to play games this season,” Miller said. “Everybody wants to play and everybody wants to be out there on the field, and now we’re watching the Premier League and leagues around the world and we see them playing and it’s something that everybody misses.”
You started to see that passion and commitment show itself on the field. The quality of play began to rise during the second matchdays of the group stage.
“The fans needed this, but so did we,” Chris Mueller told me after Orlando City SC opened their tournament with back-to-back wins. “To be able to do what we love is a blessing. We can’t take this for granted. We are getting to play soccer again while the world outside is going crazy. We will take advantage of this and enjoy playing the game we know and love.”
That attitude was felt throughout the bubble, with the desire to focus on soccer paramount. The tough times seemed to be in the rearview mirror, and it was truly a joy to see everyone get back to work in this “new normal.”
From ESPN’s standpoint, workdays began to take a normal shape. Not only was I working the sidelines for all of the games on our air, but we were also filing reports for SportsCenter, ESPN FC and ESPN Deportes and making appearances on ESPN Radio. For the first time, we were talking soccer and not positive coronavirus cases, and I cannot explain the excitement that brought. We were finally covering sports again after nearly five months without.
Week 4: The final countdown
With eight teams eliminated after the group stage, the bubble has been cut in half. The Swan tower of the resort opened to the public, with everyone related to MLS is Back in the Dolphin tower and a bridge connecting the two across a lake blocked off. The hotel has a bit of an empty feel again, just as it did in Week 1, but for different reasons. The sense of appreciation is still there, but no doubt there is a feeling of seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
For the teams that have been knocked out, emotions have been bittersweet. As one player heading home told me: “I hate to lose, but happy as hell to be going home to my family.”
After a month inside the bubble, the one thing I can say is that despite all of the uncertainty, I never felt unsafe. As a crew, we have followed every protocol and every rule. I commend MLS for sticking to its plan, even in the face of early criticism. Were there issues kicking off this tournament? Of course. But as of now, the MLS is Back Tournament has proved to be a model for how to play professional sports safely in 2020. Here’s to hoping for a solid ending to what has been a successful experience.