Coronavirus / USL - Philadelphia Union II

How I covered a match in person during a pandemic

Photo xourtesy Matt Ralph

It’s safe to say that 2020 has turned out to be a year that nobody anticipated.

A global pandemic that effectively ended the Union’s season just as it began was not something anybody here at Philly Soccer Page expected as we hoped and prepared to watch the club’s best season to date. But here we are, coronavirus has dictated all our lives for over four months now and it’s not going away any time soon.

So you may be wondering how on this virus-filled earth I was able to cover a professional soccer match live and in person only a few days ago.

Well, here’s how.

Getting in

If you’ve followed PSP for a little while, you’ll know that Tim Jones and I frequently cover the Union II along with my brother, Sean, who occasionally writes a match report, and a few newer writers who are put on a rotation to get used to how we do things. At this point, I’m familiar with the process of getting into the press box at the stadium, and it normally just involves sending an email to the communications staff saying that you’d like to be in attendance for the Union II days before the match, then you show up early to get cleared by security, have your name checked off the list by a staff member or intern, then you go up four flights of stairs into the written press room and take any seat you want at the counter. All in all, it’s generally easy and laid-back, and that’s exactly what I did in March for the Union II’s home opener, their only normal match before the pandemic.

Obviously this past Saturday was different.

The biggest difference was that I had no idea if I could cover the match in person until the day before. Our managing editor, Peter Andrews, Tim and I had been discussing the possibility of the club allowing press into the match days before based on rumors and speculation, nothing concrete. It wasn’t until the day before the match that Pete got confirmation that one of the PSP writers could be in the press box, so I leaped on the opportunity, emailing everyone back within minutes saying I want it, and I was told it was mine, be sure to follow up with their staff and follow all of their rules.

I heard back quickly from the club’s staff saying I’d have a spot in the press box, and there were three main rules.

Rule #1: A mask must be worn at all times. 
Rule #2: You must practice social distancing and stay 6 feet away from other people. 
Rule #3: All post-match interviews will be conducted through Zoom, there is to be no close in-person contact with the players and staff. 

All very obvious rules that society is expected to follow, and all things I agreed I would do.

So I wore a mask from 6:45 p.m until I got back to the car at 10 p.m. It’s not fun to wear a mask for that long when the temperature is in the low 90’s, but I still did it. I got my temperature checked before I was allowed into the stadium. I practiced social distancing as much as physically possible. I got on the Zoom call to listen to the post-match conference and I only saw the players and staff from the press box, well beyond 6 feet away.

An empty stadium

But there were other small things that impacted how things worked in the press box. First, there were only certain seats available. Normally there are about 15 chairs at the lower counter for press, while the staff is at the second counter, but there were only 5 seats on Saturday to follow social distancing. There were already two members of the press sitting at the far left of the counter, so I took the second seat from the right to avoid an obscured view by one of the beams. Generally I sit right in the middle to get the best view, but that seat wasn’t an option since the staff had to have the most chairs possible while still following social distancing protocols.

Some of the small things were things I’d taken for granted before. I was told the staff would not be providing printed information on paper for journalists to remove chances of close contact and to limit the spreading of surface germs, instead it would be emailed out by staff. This meant there was no game notes packet sitting on the counter for me, no lineup was printed, no halftime statistics were handed to me, nothing. It may seem like no big deal, but when you have a laptop screen and are flipping through six different tabs to find out how to spell the other team’s striker’s name that just scored when you’re used to checking a piece of paper, it’s harder than you think.

Issa Rayyan watches the match in a relatively empty stadium while substitutes socially distanced sitting on the bench. Photo: Sean Griswold

It was much quieter in the stadium too. The Union II does not draw in tons of fans and these matches are much, much quieter than a Union match, but it was eerily quiet. Even sitting all the way up in the press box, I could hear players talking, not even shouting, just talking to each other. Fans were not allowed in the stadium, but there were a few people in the stands, who I assume were family members, Academy players, and the injured Issa Rayyan. Still, everyone was socially distant in the stadium, with only a section or two of seating being open.

Union II staff mostly distance themselves in the empty stadium. Photo: Sean Griswold

Several parts of the stadium were blocked off to everyone. Barricades were put up blocking off the concourse from the entrance, only allowing the few people in attendance to go straight to their seats and the one open bathroom. I encountered much less security, with only one person at the gate checking my bag, taking people’s temperatures and speaking with spectators going in. At the top level the bathrooms for the press were open, but not really the dining room. Food was still available, but it wasn’t a buffet like normal, it was boxed meals that we could take. These are all little things that I’d taken for granted before, chatting with security, grabbing some dinner before kickoff, and moving pretty freely and easily throughout the stadium. It was all the little things that disappeared that stuck out the most to me.

Honestly, I still enjoyed covering the match despite the new rules and changes. I want to continue to cover the matches in person whenever I can, I think it just adds that extra element you don’t get from watching a broadcast.

And honestly, much like every single one of us, I just really missed live professional soccer and a chance to get out of my house.

3 Comments

  1. Andy Muenz says:

    My wife and I went to the Union watch party at the Stadium Monday night in order to get out of the house. Although a bit more crowded, things were somewhat similar in that there were boxed off areas for each group of 1-4 people, and limited areas we could access.
    .
    It’s too bad the game you got to cover wasn’t more exciting…maybe tonight’s will be better.
    .
    As far as getting stats at halftime, are you able to get them off of the TV coverage?

  2. You should get a better mask. Google ‘running masks’; these are much more comfortable than the one you are wearing in the picture.

  3. How are the parking lots and Riverwalk handled during matches? Even locals residents like using the scenic Riverwalk that goes right by the front of the riverside of the stadium for exercise, fishing and docking.

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