It’s no secret that players in Major League Soccer and athletes all over the world have been forced to change their routines because of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time of writing this, it’s nearly a year to the day that North American sports leagues began to pause seasons with MLS making that decision on March 12, 2020.
The Columbus Crew was one of many teams that battled through the adversity of COVID-19 over the last 12 months but one of a small handful that ended their season by lifting a trophy. The Black & Gold did that — despite two starters being out because of COVID-19 protocols — last December with a 3-0 win against the Seattle Sounders.
A year has passed and the 2020 MLS Cup champions are now starting the 2021 season. Preseason began last week in Chula Vista, California and the team is still following the same health and safety protocols as they did in 2020.
“One of the reasons we came here first is we are basically in a bubble here,” said head coach Caleb Porter last week. “We’re at the U.S. Training Center in Chula Vista and we’re on their campus and we aren’t leaving their campus for 11 days. So essentially we are in our team bubble here and we have two negative tests across the board for every staff member and player.”
MLS’s rules entering the 2021 season still require all players and staff members to take COVID-19 tests and turn in two negative test results to enter training groups and avoid isolation. This has been the case now since last July when the MLS is Back Tournament required all teams to isolate amongst themselves in the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. The case is the same in California, a state with stricter protocols than Florida.
“The protocols are very tight here in California,” said Porter. “So we have had to be a little bit creative with a few situations, dining and meetings and things like that. But that’s normal stuff we have to be careful like always.”
Being careful has become almost routine for the club after multiple instances of positive cases. The first came last July when a Crew player tested positive for COVID-19, requiring the team to get tested daily when they entered the Orlando bubble. Last October, two Black & Gold staff members contracted COVID-19, causing a match between Columbus and Orlando City to be postponed a month.
The toughest challenge occurred during the MLS Cup playoffs when eight Crew players tested positive for the coronavirus and missed both the Eastern Conference semifinal against Nashville SC and the Eastern Conference Final against the New England Revolution. One of those eight players was starting goalkeeper Eloy Room who described his lingering side effects after he had the virus.
“Only after a couple of days I lost my sense of taste and smell but other than that I felt fine,” he said. “So for me, it was lucky that I didn’t have any bad symptoms or sick or something.”
The MLS community was also shocked to learn just two days before the 2020 MLS Cup Final that Darlington Nagbe and Pedro Santos both tested positive for COVID-19 and had to miss the championship game. Alls well that ends well for Columbus, as the team was able to overcome all the adversity and celebrate a championship. The squad has always been aware of safety protocols that need to be taken but now it’s at a point that’s it’s become almost second nature.
“We’re getting used to all the rules and stuff but it’s also like most things we do automatically now because we know what to do,” said Room. “It’s a little bit easier now because we know how to handle stuff in certain situations because it’s not new anymore and that season, everything was new. Now, we are used to it.”
The Black & Gold continue their preseason training camp in California until March 13. The 2021 Crew season kicks off on April 8 in the CONCACAF Champions League when Columbus faces Real Esteli in Managua, Nicaragua.