Sports can't run perfectly amid pandemic, but soccer is doing a good job

Kevin Baxter, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Soccer

The MLS Is Back tournament wasn't a day old when it appeared as if the league would have to make a quick U-turn and leave Orlando, Florida. Two teams had been withdrawn from the tournament because 20 players tested positive for COVID-19 and several others had initial unconfirmed positive tests.

The league's elaborate quarantine bubble at Disney's Swan and Dolphin resort clearly had been stretched too thin to protect the 26 teams and 1,300 people MLS had crowded inside. Panic was beginning to set in.

"It's as if they sent us to Wuhan in the middle of the pandemic," Toronto FC defender Chris Mavinga told the French sports daily L'Equipe the day before his team's tournament opener was postponed because players on both teams had inconclusive tests.

The league trotted out deputy commissioner Mark Abbott to change the narrative. MLS had confidence in its protocols, he said, and the league would soldier on.

"We believe the tournament can be carried out safely," he said.

That was 16 days ago. Since then, the league says it has performed 7,615 tests without a confirmed positive. Abbott was right and the league's return-to-play tournament, which once seemed on the verge of being canceled, has advanced to the knockout stages without a recent hiccup.


The National Women's Soccer League also enjoyed success keeping COVID-19 at bay. The first professional sports league in the U.S. to resume play during the pandemic, the NWSL finished its eight-team 29-day tournament in suburban Salt Lake City last Saturday without a single player or team official testing positive in its quarantine bubble.

Contrast that with Major League Baseball, which postponed two games Monday over a coronavirus outbreak. The Miami Marlins, who had 11 players and two coaches test positive, could have their season paused indefinitely.

"As we have seen with the current sports experiment, keeping this virus at bay -- even with elaborate planning -- can be difficult," said Dr. Anne Rimoin, a professor of epidemiology at UCLA and director of the school's Center for Global and Immigrant Health. "It hinges on perfect behavior and testing -- both of which are hard to achieve.

"Most professional sports require some level of physical contact and it's hard for these athletes to wear masks, so designing a perfect system is going to be tough unless everyone is 100% perfect at quarantining."


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