After they won their game Saturday in the German Bundesliga’s return to play, victorious Dortmund players almost joined hands when they formed a line that stretched the width of the field. Together, they progressed toward their supporters’ stand behind one goal, clapping their hands and raising their arms in acknowledgment and appreciation as they moved, the 80,000-capacity stadium otherwise empty and silent.
Just the latest, strangest sporting moment in the coronavirus pandemic, a scene that soon could be coming to an MLS game not so near you.
Its season suspended in March, the league could return starting next month with a World Cup-modeled tournament involving all of its 26 teams quarantined in Orlando.
If it happens, it will be without spectators, for a television audience only.
“It’s definitely not going to be the same,” Loons defender Chase Gasper said. “The fans are the best part of the game. That’s why you play the game.”
Soccer supporters bring color, song and smoke to games around the world. Each game nearly 3,000 Minnesota United fans stand behind one goal on Allianz Field’s “Wonderwall,” a kaleidoscope of sight and sound that, after a victory, concludes with players and supporters belting out the Oasis song bearing the same name.
“There’s no better feeling than hearing ‘Wonderwall’ after a win at Allianz,” Gasper said. “It’s too bad if it has to happen and it won’t compare to playing in front of all our fans. But through a glass half-full, I’ll be happy to play again any way we can.”
It’s the same, in its own way more or less, all around MLS.
“The supporters are the lifeblood of our game,” Minnesota United coach Adrian Heath said. “It’s what differentiates our sports from anybody else.”
The Loons went 10-1-6 at home last year in their first season at Allianz Field. Coupled with a 5-10-2 record in road games, they finished fourth in the Western Conference. That qualified them for the playoffs — and a first-round home game — for the first time before they fell 2-1 to the L.A. Galaxy.
The home-road discrepancy is common in MLS. Only last-place Vancouver had a losing home record (5-7-5) in the Western Conference while first-place LAFC was the West’s only team with a winning road record, at 8-3-6. Its only loss in its 13-1-3 home record came to the Loons.
“When you’re a little kid, you think of packed stadiums and playing in front of fans, feeding off their energy and giving your energy to them,” said Loons striker Mason Toye, who scored both goals in that 2-0 victory at LAFC in September. “That back and forth is so special.”
Whenever MLS resumes, it will play without spectators. So, too, will the NBA, the NHL, Major League Baseball and most likely the NFL in the coming months. NASCAR went back to racing Sunday at an empty Darlington Raceway in South Carolina. Pro golf that day saw Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson, Rickie Fowler and Matthew Wolff play a nationally televised skins exhibition relatively alone from Seminole Golf Club in Florida.
NASCAR drivers probably can’t tell during races whether anybody is in the grandstands or not. Golf is played primarily in silence, even with 30,000 fans on the grounds.
Soccer played without an audience will demand more self-motivation.
“I’m sure there will be plenty of pump-up speeches and halftime conversations,” Loons veteran midfielder Ethan Finlay said. “Players will have to get up for games. It’ll be different, of course. It’ll be a challenge. You’ll have to provide your own energy because you won’t have the energy of the crowd.”
The Bundesliga returned with six games Saturday and another two Sunday, games that Heath called a “barometer” for soccer’s return in Europe and the Americas.
“I just hope everybody comes through safe and maybe we can start piggybacking on what they are doing,” Heath said, “because ultimately we all want to see football.”
Heath said coaches want to coach and Finlay said players want to play, if player safety in particular can be achieved and if financial compensation can be reached between owners and players.
“This is a game that we love,” Finlay said. “When we grew up, we played it in the rain. We played in the snow. You played in front of nobody. For us, it’s about getting out there and competing. That would be a great start.”