These are long days of masked life inside the “bubble” for Minnesota United’s 40-person traveling party at the Walt Disney World Resort, which in normal times calls itself the happiest place on Earth.
So much so that very early on in their stay when players were quarantined awaiting their first COVID-19 test results, teammates stacked room-service meal containers high against veteran defender Romain Metanire’s hotel-room door.
“Some days we’re in our rooms 20 of 24 hours,” Loons veteran defender Michael Boxall said. “Boredom definitely can set in.”
Away from their families and home for as many as six weeks, the Loons have sacrificed their normal lives for an MLS is Back tournament intended to get some of the league’s revenue flowing again after a four-month shutdown.
They and the other 23 teams now participating are sequestered on their own secured floor of a resort hotel not far from where NBA teams are isolated, too, at the same Disney athletic complex.
Everyone wears a mask everywhere they go, except when they’re in their own rooms. They now can meet, eat together in small groups and socialize on a floor that has their own meal room, team room and three player lounges that offer table tennis, board games, poker tables and old-school arcade games. Monday was a scheduled golf outing day, when Loons players wore masks on the course in 90-degree weather.
Of course, there’s always Netflix, video games and watching the Premier League in their own rooms. Some players brought their own gaming monitors on the chartered flight that brought the team from Minnesota to Orlando.
“ ‘Call of Duty’ has been a lifesaver,” said Boxall, who battles teammates Ethan Finlay, Aaron Schoenfeld, Tyler Miller and Robin Lod remotely, each competing in the video game from their own rooms.
There has been little “FIFA 20” action, however.
“That game leads to a lot of broken controllers because it doesn’t do what we as footballers want it to do,” Boxall said.
All of it is intended to keep the Loons safe in the bubble and the coronavirus out. FC Dallas was withdrawn from the tournament after 10 of its players tested positive for the virus. Nashville followed when nine players tested positive. All were tested as they arrived in Orlando and awaited results before they transitioned into the bubble.
MLS on Friday said one player from Sporting Kansas City, the Loons’ opening opponent on Sunday — tested positive. Loons coach Adrian Heath said those numbers among nearly 1,900 players, coaches, referees, club and league staff show the safety protocols are working.
“I’m sure it’s being dealt with in an appropriate manner,” Heath said. “We’ll just wait for the league to tell us if everything is going ahead as normal, no problems.”
Minnesota United veteran midfielder and captain Ozzie Alonso calls it a “crazy” and “different” situation that has “never been like anything in my life.” But he also said he feels safe in that bubble, where everyone gets a nasal-swab test every other day.
“I think it is if you stay in your room, take care of your body,” Alonso said. “Use the mask, follow the rules and I think we’ll be OK. I think it’s going to be good.”
Heath said he, too, feels safe in a new environment locked away in a city where he lived six years. He never has seen it as quiet as it now — “Eerie,” he said — with Orlando’s famed amusement parks just starting to come back to life.
“They’ve done a terrific job keeping everybody isolated,” Heath said. “It’s like being in a bubble within a bubble because you don’t get off your own floor virtually … You don’t see anybody from the outside world. You can’t get out and about. It’s quite surreal. The players have been very diligent with what we’ve asked them to do. If we continue to do that, I don’t see why we shouldn’t get through the tournament with everybody fit and healthy.”
Heath said his team hasn’t had any players test positive; MLS Players Association executive board member Finlay said there was one false positive test.
“It’s absurd to expect they’ll be able to protect us from every single droplet that is out there,” Sporting Kansas City coach Peter Vermes said before that positive test. “It’s an invisible enemy that nobody can see. They put in as many precautions as they possibly can. I feel very comfortable from a safety respect. We all have our individual responsibility as well. It’s not just the league’s responsibility; it’s ours as well.”
Boxall and Alonso both said they have spent much of their time away from training in their rooms — and much of that time spent FaceTiming their families.
Boxall said about his young daughter, “She’s asked and invited me to come back home and play with her almost every time I talked to her. That’s tough to hear. If I come home with a few Minnie Mouse toys, maybe I’ll get back in her good books.”
Gone already nearly two weeks from his wife and three children, Alonso calls the tournament a “big, big sacrifice” that he is willing to make to play the game he loves.
“I talk to them almost the entire day when I’m not playing soccer,” Alonso said. “I want to see them, talk to them. It is a long time. I’ve never been too long without my family. That’s why I FaceTime every day. I try to be as close as possible. I miss them already since I came here. That’s the hard part, to be here without my family.”