Sports in a pandemic: The MLS

Sports in a pandemic: The MLS

Photo Credits: AGGIE FILE

The Aggie gets an inside look at the current era of sports

Since March 2020, sports have not been the same. After a three-month long hiatus, sports returned. And with the NBA, MLB, NFL and many more leagues currently playing, there has been a variety of sports to watch. But, the majority of teams from all leagues currently share the same experience: no fans. With the exception of some outdoor teams having limited fans in states like Texas, Florida and Missouri, the new reality includes noise being pumped in through the stadium speakers to avoid the awkwardness of silence in a big arena. 

Major League Soccer’s approach to return took the form of an NBA-type bubble. Hosting an “MLS is Back” tournament closed off to the public, the league decided to hold the tournament inside Disney World in Orlando, Florida. After initially struggling to make it work due to some positive tests from teams, the tournament was held and the Portland Timbers were the eventual champions. 

After the tournament concluded, the MLS became the first league to go from playing in a bubble to playing in their home markets and stadiums. The league released their plan to return to an additional 18-game regular season throughout November, culminating with the playoffs and the championship game on Dec. 12. Major League Soccer was one of the few leagues that had not begun their season before the sudden pause of sports back in March. Although they will hold fewer games, the structure of their season is about the same as it would have been without the pandemic.

As for health protocols, the MLS learned from their tournament that social distancing and the commitment to wearing masks were key to a successful regular season. Working closely with the league’s infectious disease advisors, they developed a plan to ensure the health and safety of all teams. All players, coaches and staff are tested every other day as well as the day before a match. They are also given guidelines to follow for when they are outside of the facility in order to limit the spread of COVID-19. For travel, teams take chartered flights or buses to their destinations and arrive on the day of the match. In most cases, they will also leave shortly after the match is finished. Aside from those guidelines, there are many more that teams must follow inside their own facilities and on matchday.

The Aggie had an opportunity to witness firsthand what it was like to experience a live MLS game during the COVID-19 pandemic. On Sept. 23, the Los Angeles Football Club (LAFC) hosted the Vancouver Whitecaps at Banc of California Stadium in Downtown Los Angeles, California. 

A section of the stadium’s parking lot was blocked off and served as a COVID-19 testing site. In the parking lot, cars were parked in every other space to avoid close contact between people getting out of their cars. As you get closer to the stadium, each media member holds a separate entrance in order to avoid a large number of people at one entrance. Masks were a major part of the entire experience as one had to be worn at all times except when eating. 

Before one can enter, a COVID-19 questionnaire must be completed. It included questions about possible contact with the virus and whether one has felt any symptoms recently. Upon completion, every person’s temperature is taken and if it fits the criteria, they are let in. Hand sanitizer stations can be seen at almost every turn, as it is something that LAFC and the MLS have emphasized the importance of, especially for the media members. If an elevator has to be used, it is limited to four people per trip and the designated spots of where to stand are in each far corner. Social distancing is enforced and a key part of their set up on game day. 

As for the working space, since it is an empty stadium, members are given a suite usually reserved for companies or people who rent them out for a given game. The limit is two people per suite and there is much space to socially distance, inside and outside where one has a clear view of the field. While inside the stadium, the team does not allow eating of any kind but instead dedicates a section located outside that serves as a designated eating area.

The anticipation leading to the start of  the game itself feels more like an amateur park league game rather than a professional football match. Since there is nothing other than music playing up until game time, the speakers play loudly in a lonely arena. To cover up the view of empty seats, large banners with the teams’ logos and sponsors are put up. Even when the players take the field ready to start the match, there is an awkward, silent feel.

As the match begins, LAFC, like many other clubs across all sports, are allowed to pump in crowd noise to drown out the silence and try to make it as normal as possible. There are instances when there is no sound and there is simply silence. The type of silence that makes you feel like you are in the stadium alone. Even though the stadium is in the middle of one of the biggest cities, the silence brought upon is one that feels like you are isolated. When goals are made, a loud sound bite is played throughout the stadium and the lights flash, similar to what you would see in a regular LAFC game with fans in attendance. The sound is normal, but the feeling is not.

Although the field of play can’t be socially distanced, the benches and those on the sidelines are required to wear masks and sit separately. Rather than the usual ball person that gives the players the ball when it goes out of bounds, there are stands that hold the ball where the players can walk up to and get the ball themselves. 

As for the game itself, LAFC won comfortably by a score of 6-0, even breaking an MLS record, scoring four goals in 14 minutes. Coming off a brutal loss in Seattle the game before, the feeling of being at home, even with no fans, was one of comfort. 

“We love playing at home,” said LAFC defender Dejan Jakovic in his postgame Zoom press conference. “Unfortunately, we’re not able to play in front of our fans but we know they’re back home cheering us on.” 

Although they are unable to play without the extra adrenaline of fans, playing in a stadium in which they are comfortable and a stadium that they know so well can work wonders, even in the current era of sports. 

“It’s a special place to play,” Jakovic said. “You can tell that we’ve always been a difficult team to beat at home.”

The circumstances of playing are not ideal, but it is the current state of all sports for an indefinite amount of time. It is better than the alternative of no sports, but it still takes some getting used to. Every team can add in and simulate crowd noise, but nothing will ever beat the rush of thousands of voices cheering on their team. 

Written by: Omar Navarro — sports@theaggie.org