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Crew players, coaches comfortable with returning to play in market with continuing protocols

Matthew Stith and Jared Martinez

Just over a month ago, the MLS is Back Tournament started in uncertainty. After multiple positive COVID-19 tests upon arrival at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Florida, both FC Dallas and Nashville SC were sent home from the tournament. When the first game began on July 8, it was far from clear if Major League Soccer’s return-to-play plan would work.

On Tuesday night, MLS crowned a tournament champion, the Portland Timbers, in what turned out to be a successful month-plus event. While COVID-19 cases continued to rise around the country, the MLS players in the “bubble” were safe with no positive tests the remainder of the tournament.

MLS is Back was a success, but MLS isn’t done. The 2020 season is set to resume on Wednesday night when Dallas and Nashville begin making up their missed group stage games — whose results counted toward the regular season standings — and the rest of the league will start play on Thursday, Aug. 20.

Unlike the tournament, this resumption of play won’t take place in a bubble. MLS’s plan is to have games in home markets, looking to close out the regular season and have an expanded playoff. This means making a season work while traveling, even regionally as teams will, around the country.

While no other U.S. professional sports league has achieved this without mass outbreaks, Columbus Crew SC players and coaches aren’t too concerned about the league’s plan.

“I think the team is doing a good job,” midfielder Darlington Nagbe said this week. “Obviously we’re not in a bubble, so it’s hard to control everything, but the team has done a great job in terms of testing, showing up at different times (to training) so we’re only all together at the field. The team’s doing a great job in the locker room and in the social areas of the facility, we’re trying to keep everything distant from each other.”

For the Crew, the first regular season game is scheduled for next Thursday against the Chicago Fire at MAPFRE Stadium. Columbus will then play five more games — two home, three away — over a little more than three weeks to complete Phase 1 of MLS’s return to play. The Crew will travel to New York City FC, down to FC Cincinnati and out to Chicago during that stretch.

And while this will be the first time fans have seen the Black & Gold since they were sent home from Orlando in a penalty kick shootout against Minnesota United late last month, the team has been training regularly since the return.

Over that time, the testing protocols have remained the same and actually become the norm for Columbus.

“We’re going to keep doing what we’ve been doing,” head coach Caleb Porter said. “We were training here for four weeks before we went into the bubble with no issues, so it’s not like all of a sudden we’re coming out with a protocol. We’ve had that protocol for a long time and there was another one when we were in the bubble. We rely on the government, on our state officials and we rely on the league. We have a very thorough and comprehensive testing protocol that’s been in place and will continue to be in place. Nothing has changed. It hasn’t gotten any safer, it’s still something we have to be careful about.”

Testing protocols are obviously important, but what has negatively affected leagues like the MLB is players not following rules or guidelines when they aren’t at facilities. And while bars and restaurants aren’t the only places a person can contract COVID-19, those spaces are potential hotbeds for the spread of the virus.

For the Crew, who spent more than a month in the “bubble” in Orlando, avoiding likely places where they could contract the coronavirus, bring it back to their team and causing a major issue, shouldn’t be a problem.

“Obviously we’ve seen what’s happening with the MLB, so I think for us it’s just taking precautions and being as safe as possible now that we’re outside the bubble,” Nagbe said. “When we’re coming to practice and working as a team, we’re following the protocol that MLS has provided for us. In terms of personal life at home, I think that guys are just being careful on how we go about our lives and the things that we do and how we interact with other people.”

Added Porter: “We still need to be careful and remind the players outside of training, which is the real change from the bubble. You’re not controlling what they’re doing outside of training, but our guys are good pros and they understand how important what they do outside of training is. We were in that mindset before we left for the bubble, so it’s just about reminding them, but they’re aware. We’ve had four tests since we’ve been back and we’ve been negative in every single one, so that continues to show that our guys are doing the right things and that they are really focused on this season and making sure that we don’t have any issues.”

From the initial talk about MLS returning to play, the Black & Gold’s approach has been one of focus. The Crew is confident in the team’s abilities and believes this group can make a run at a championship.

Because of this, the team has taken every precaution, dating back to early May when MLS sides were allowed to return to the facilities for individual training. Columbus doesn’t want to have a potentially successful season ruined because of a poor choice.

Going forward, that will continue to be the approach as the Black & Gold look to build on a good start to the MLS regular season.

“I think we’ve been in the right mindset. We know there’s a virus, we know we need to be careful,” Porter said. “We want to play games and we’re going to rely on the government and on MLS and we’re going to approach what’s ahead of us. Nothing has changed from when it all started.

“If someone is feeling nervous, of course we’re going to talk about it, but we’ve been in the same situation for more than four months now. There’s nothing new except that we’re going to be playing games in stadiums that might have some people in the stands... And if the fans don’t feel comfortable coming, then they shouldn’t come. If players don’t feel comfortable playing, then they shouldn’t play. But from our standpoint, that mindset for players, it’s nothing new.”