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Crew, Porter open-minded to various potential MLS return situations

As the league weights its options to continue the season, the coaching staff works to keep the players ready when a decision is made

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

If, when and how the 2020 Major League Soccer season continues is still very much up in the air due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the most recent developments, which included the opening of teams’ training facilities to individual activities and the league exploring several scenarios to resume play during the coronavirus pandemic, steps forward in the complicated process.

Columbus Crew SC, which first reopened its training facility on Obetz on Wednesday, has certainly felt the positive vibe with players allowed to attend individual sessions, but inside the club, there remains the feeling that it’s still too early to predict when play could resume, as several questions need to be answered and quite a few hurdles must be overcome before it happens.

MLS explored several different scenarios to restart the season, which was interrupted in mid-March, but the league’s priority, Massive Report has been told, is to play as many matches as possible. To accomplish that and create new dates in the calendar, the league is considering pushing MLS Cup to December or even later.

One option that gained traction within the last week was the possibility of reuniting all the teams in a single market, keep them quarantined in hotels and play games behind closed doors for several consecutive weeks. As the Washington Post first reported, Orlando, Kansas City, Dallas and Los Angeles would be alternatives if that model moved forward.

“I’ve heard a lot of things thrown out, but I’ve heard nothing concrete,” Crew head coach Caleb Porter said of potential return-to-play models on a teleconference on Wednesday. “We’re open-minded to listening to it, we all want to work, we want to get back to doing what we do, which is playing and coaching and to have a season, but we’re relying on our medical professionals and in the leadership of our league and our president, Tim Bezbatchenko, and our ownership group to guide us and lead us.”

Most of the challenge of restarting the season lays in the fact that cities around the country are in very different situations regarding the pandemic. On one hand, Ohio started reopening businesses in early May and Florida hosted two Ultimate Fighting Championships events over the last five days and its governor is welcoming sports events into the state, New York, on the other, is still in critical condition with more than 20,000 deaths registered due to the coronavirus.

MLS currently has 26 teams spread out across 17 American states and three in Canada and needs each of these markets to reach a minimum level of safety for it to move forward.

“The real challenge in our job is that we’re connected to 25 other markets around the country and every market is different, unique and the laws are different on how they’re opening back up,” Porter added. “So what might be good for Columbus might not be good for New York and everything has to be connected. We watch the news, we try to get updates from anybody we can, we study the leagues around the world, we keep our eyes on the Bundesliga and the other professional leagues in our country because a lot of times what happens in those leagues dictate what happens for us. We’re really optimistic, but also realistic and that’s how we’re communicating with our guys.”

Like other sports leagues around the world, the next step for MLS, regardless of whichever system is chosen to continue the season, is establishing a comprehensive and reliable testing system to players, officials and staff.

That was the key for the Bundesliga to get the approval from the German government to resume play. However, with thousands of people getting infected every day in the country, it is a complicated decision to direct testing kits that could be used on those people to restart sports activities.

“Whether we do that in our market or whether we do it all together in one place, that’s going to have to happen and that’s been communicated from the league,” Porter said of testing. “One hundred percent that to get to the team training and then to matches we’re going to need testing and a protocol where all the players have been tested.”

Until that happens, all teams can do is prepare the best they can with the resources they have in hand. MLS won’t return to play until at least June 8 and that means three months of the season will have to be inserted in other portions of the calendar. For the Crew, for example, that’s 13 matches.

Whenever play resumes, teams will most likely deal with condensed game windows and players, even those who have been training every day since the season was put on hold, probably won’t be in the best form.

Some decisions could be made to alleviate the physical demands on players, such as the temporary increase in substitutions per match to five which has been approved by FIFA and the International Football Association Board (IFAB). But planning and rotating players will be key in the busiest stretches of the season.

“We’ve talked about how we would approach multiple compacted windows,” Porter explained. “I like the idea of the five subs, I think it would help in the sense of allowing us to do less full-rotation and more half-rotations. I think we’d see more subs at halftime so you could keep the right amount of guys together because if you look at analytics, you’ll see that if you rotate too much you don’t win. It will be important to find that right balance and figure out who you put with who, how much you’re rotating and how you’re using your subs.

“Your depth will be tested and what we don’t want to happen is having injuries on the first games. In a normal offseason, we need six weeks to prepare the players, so I think we’re going to need four weeks at least. In a normal situation, they’d probably be ready for 60-70 minutes after four weeks, so we’ll already need to push it a little further.”

For now, Crew players will continue working on their individual plans, though, and those too have been carefully evaluated by the coaching staff. While it’s important that players are in a good physical condition when team training is allowed, the team is being cautious to not put too much burden on their bodies in a moment in which playing games is not in the foreseeable future yet.

“We’re always on a calendar and that’s not the case now,” Porter concluded. “We don’t know when games are going to start, so there was a concern that we could be doing too much right now and that’s something we talked about and made sure we weren’t. But also, we could be doing not enough. So we’ve been trying to find that sweet spot in between and making sure we’re doing enough, but also understanding that we’ll have some time to ramp up.

“We just don’t want to be behind if all of a sudden they want us to play in, let’s say, three weeks. I think we’ve got the balance right but the proofing will be when it starts.”