Coronavirus / For Pete's Sake

Boys in the bubble

Photo courtesy Andrew Zwarych / Philadelphia Union

In 2007’s The Simpsons Movie, the city of Springfield ends up being sealed in an enormous glass bubble for reasons that are, frankly, too silly to write down.

(Okay, fine. From Wikipedia: “Homer rescues a pig from Krusty Burger. He stores its feces in a large silo until Marge tells him to safely dispose of the waste. Homer initially intends to take his silo to the waste management plant, but after Lenny calls to tell him that Lard Lad Donuts is giving away free donuts, Homer dumps the silo straight into the lake, which severely pollutes it. Moments later, a squirrel jumps into the lake who was chased by a raccoon and is mutated by the pollution.” As a result, President Arnold Schwarzenegger has the Environmental Protection Agency cover Springfield with a giant glass dome.)

Anyway, it probably goes without saying that the Springfieldians do not enjoy bubble life. Among other things, they form a pitchfork-wielding mob to try to kill Homer Simpson. And it isn’t long before the EPA honcho in charge of the bubble is delivering a soliloquy on the virtues of going mad with power.

Of course, this plot point popped into my head because of the MLS is Back Tournament, set to start tomorrow morning in a secure, virus-free “bubble” at the Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida.

(Worst. Segue. Ever.)

It is an experiment unlike anything in MLS history — which is saying something for a league that has managed to accumulate quite a history of experiments in its 25 seasons.

Here are three questions I’ll be watching during the tournament, working from macro to micro.

Will the bubble hold?

The tournament can happen successfully only if the bubble works as intended — keeping the players, coaches, and staff in while keeping the coronavirus out.

Early returns are mixed. Certainly, FC Dallas being forced to withdraw due to the spread of COVID-19 within the team is… bad. Rumors are that Nashville SC — a team in the Union’s group — may be next. (MLS postponed Nashville’s first match on Tuesday morning.)

With just 24 teams, the tournament can work competitively. (If Nashville’s out, move one team from Group A to replace Dallas and you’re good with six groups of four.) But the tournament can’t work on its own terms of the virus is spreading in the bubble.

The good news? There’s no evidence that the virus is spreading in the bubble.  Both FC Dallas and Nashville appear to have picked up COVID-19 in their home markets and not in Orlando. As I pointed out on Twitter last night, that’s a problem with the league’s plan as a whole, but not with the bubble itself.

While much has been made of the tournament’s location in Florida, a center of the pandemic in the United States, that shouldn’t matter from a bubble perspective. The bigger issue seems to be the baseline level of virus in communities all around the country, and the inadequate precautions taken by some teams (and their communities) to stop the spread. That’s a nationwide failure, not solely an MLS one.

So — for now — the bubble seems to be holding.

Whether that can continue long enough to complete the tournament remains to be seen.

Will the soccer be any good?

Let’s assume that viral spread in the bubble is negligible and the tournament goes off as planned.

It’s reasonable to wonder whether the soccer will be anything like MLS at its best. Consider:

  • None of the teams have played a full match in four months, not even a scrimmage against other league competition.
  • Teams will be playing every four or five days despite a lack of match fitness.
  • The games will be played without fans in what may be underwhelming surroundings, including kickoffs at the odd local times of 9 a.m. and 10:30 p.m.
  • The stakes — prize money and a berth in the next Concacaf Champions League — may not be enticing for some clubs and players.

Obviously, it would be a shame to go through all of the preparation required to stage the tournament for an underwhelming set of games. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the quality of the soccer turns out to be a pleasant surprise. I can imagine that many players will be amped up to return to competitive action after a long, unexpected, and stressful break.

How will the Union perform?

Finally, we come to the Union.

All indications are that preparations for the tournament have gone off without a hitch from a Union perspective. As Jim Curtin explained on Friday, no one on the team has registered a positive test for COVID-19 in the last three months. Travel to Orlando went smoothly; the Union breezed through quarantine and have apparently been training without incident, if El Brujo’s quads are any evidence.

On top of that, the Union have a favorable draw in their group (NYC FC away from Yankee Stadium and two expansion sides) and seemingly have the roster and coaching staff to make a deep run in the tournament.

Will they pull it off? It may come down to squad depth. The Union have a relatively short roster, with only 25 active players going into the tournament. And some of those players have little or no experience in MLS — Matej Oravec, Olivier Mbaizo, Michee Ngaline, Cole Turner, and Jack de Vries all come to mind. Given the high-intensity style Philadelphia wants to play, the whole roster will need to be able to soak up minutes throughout the tournament to give the Union a shot at the title.

That is, if a title is awarded at all.

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