It has been more than five months since LAFC cancelled its Concacaf Champions League match against Liga Mx’s Cruz Azul at Banc of California Stadium on March 12, the first domino to fall before the global COVID-19 pandemic ultimately brought the MLS season to a screeching halt. As the pandemic raged throughout the country and the world, countless sporting events and large-scale social events were cancelled to stunt the viruses spread.
It seemed like professional sports would not return soon, until the NWSL and then MLS
announced plans for a tournament where all teams would co-exist in a single space, a “bubble-like” ecosystem with a whole set of systems and health protocols to keep all participants safe.
The MLS is Back Tournament was born, and so were a whole new set of health protocols. There was no movement in and out of the “bubble”. No family interaction, COVID-19 testing every other day and mandatory mask wearing everywhere but your room. There was a new set of challenges, yes, but a certain comfort that the health and safety of all participants was in the hands of a dedicated staff whose sole function was to ensure that play continued safely.
“There was certainly confidence in the bubble,” LAFC head coach Bob Bradley said. “With the testing every other day, and when you continue to get negative tests and everybody just appreciates what’s going on, then they can enjoy the camaraderie and the fact that we’re back on the field training and of course playing matches.”
Now, LAFC is out of the bubble and back home in Los Angeles, where players would be under less restrictions and less control. But for LAFC, keeping their players healthy and safe in a city still dealing with a high number of infections is just another test that the staff have been preparing to deal with for months.
“When things [initially] shut down, at that point the big focus was education and letting people know what is going on,” LAFC Head Athletic Trainer Sean Kupiec said. “We wanted to let the players know everything from best practices, to information about the virus, to ways to keep yourself safe, hygiene habits, physical distancing, all of that. That was a big part of the first stage.”
For a group of young, active professional athletes, the transition was not always easy.
“It was a huge change for a lot of people,” LAFC defender Tristan Blackmon said. “You’re used to going outside and going to do things that you like to do. So, once we got the order that we had to stay indoors it was a huge shift. But I do think that kind of set us up for what it was going to be like in Orlando, and kind of have a sense of what the lifestyle we were getting into.”
Once the team was out of the bubble, Kupiec led a continuation of the extensive work that the training, medical, and coaching staff have been doing from the outset.
“The one thing that I’ve said to everyone is that COVID-19 has made a one-step process, a multi-step process,” Kupiec said. “So my daily responsibilities, for instance, on top of everything that I normally do, now in order to just do some of those tasks, I have all these other protocols and procedures that I have to implement. But most importantly, I need to at the beginning of the day make sure everyone’s compliant with just getting into the building.”
It is not an easy job, as Los Angeles has emerged as a virus hotspot in the state and in the country. The situation all around them is now a far cry from when the players were confident they were in a safe environment in Orlando.
“You had this sense of control in the bubble that you knew the people that you were hanging out with on a daily basis, almost with certainty, were safe,” Kupiec said. “Once you get back home, depending on how many people you’re in close contact with, well that element changes things now. How are you going to control everything for your teammates? Especially when, for example, they could have a family of five, and they all potentially may or may not be doing the right thing.”
It is real challenge for Kupiec and the coaching staff to make sure the players take responsibility in ensuring that everyone stays healthy.
“It’s obvious that we are living in very different times,” LAFC midfielder Pancho Ginella said. “That said, we are all very grateful that we have the opportunity to compete and to be able to train every single day. Thankfully there haven’t been any positive tests in our group and we must continue being responsible.”
Bradley stressed the accountability that each player must take on in this new era.
“We reminded everyone when we arrived back in Los Angeles that now, discipline, responsibility are so important,” Bradley said. “Making sure that when they leave the training center that they’re still doing a good job at home. We know that this virus is still around us, and so it’s really important that everybody is smart and diligent, and we can continue to push things forward.”