Why MLS bubble faces crucial test this week

More than anything else so far, the MLS is Back Tournament has been an exercise in flexibility. What was supposed to be a 26-team event when it kicked off last week in Orlando became a 24-club competition when FC Dallas and Nashville SC were forced to withdraw because of COVID-19 outbreaks within their ranks.

The groups had to be realigned. A slew of matches had to be postponed, delayed, rescheduled, rescheduled again or outright canceled because of positive tests, false positive tests, inconclusive tests and weather.

For the last two days, though, things have actually gone ahead as planned. The three games slated for Monday were completed without incident. So was Tuesday morning’s tilt between the defending MLS Cup champion Seattle Sounders and Chicago Fire. Two more contests are set for Tuesday night.

MLS insists that the early hiccups were expected, that the weeding out of coronavirus-infected players and teams is proof that the league’s safety protocols are working as intended. Still, mistakes have been made along the way. The biggest by far: not requiring players and staff to arrive in Central Florida at least two weeks before the games began.

Major League Soccer players showed up much closer to the kickoff of their tournament than players in the NBA are going to. (Photo by Andrew Bershaw/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)


“It’s possible for a person to be exposed and infected and still not be positive 72 hours later. We believe that a majority of infections can be diagnosed by Day 5, but there are still cases of people whose test didn’t turn positive until Day 11 or 13, which is why we recommend 14 days of isolation from time of exposure,” said Yahoo News Medical Contributor Dr. Kavita Patel.

MLS pushed for the 14-day quarantine, but the league’s players association negotiated that down to a week. By comparison, the NBA, which is also planning to restart its season in the Orlando area later this month, had its teams arrive 21 days in advance of competition. “I think in hindsight, if we had to do it over again, we would’ve pushed harder for the 14-day window,” a source with knowledge of the league’s thinking told Yahoo Sports.

Given the short timeline, the fact that some players and staffers tested positive after they had been already been in MLS’s so-called bubble for a number of days isn’t at all surprising.

“The real question is, where are they getting it?” said Dr. Dara Kass, another Yahoo News Medical Contributor.

So far, MLS has maintained that those who have tested positive contracted COVID-19 before they traveled to Orlando, not after they arrived. But now that every team has been on the ground for more than a week, we’re going to find out for sure just how impenetrable the bubble really is.

The last few clubs to arrive in Orlando checked into Disney World’s Swan and Dolphin resort on the evening of July 6. That means that by the end of this week, “if everyone is doing what they’re supposed to, you shouldn’t see anymore positives,” Kass said.

That’s what league executives are expecting, or at least hoping for, based on the guidance of the infectious disease experts advising them. But there are still obvious vulnerabilities. Florida remains a global epicenter for COVID-19. The state set a record for new daily coronavirus cases this week. As hospitality workers enter and leave the bubble each day, they could bring the virus in. It’s also probably inevitable that a player or staffer will breach the health perimeter over the course of the month.

With bad news coming thick and fast for a couple of days last week, it seemed fair to wonder if the MLS is Back Tournament would or should continue. Now, after an eventful start on but mostly off the field, things seem to have finally settled down. There have been no new confirmed cases of coronavirus since a Sporting Kansas City player tested positive last Friday. With some luck, he’ll be the last.

Things move quickly during a pandemic, however. If there is another positive test and it occurs anytime after, say, Sunday, it would all but guarantee community spread of COVID-19 within MLS’ almost 2,000-person delegation. That would be a game-changing, potentially tournament-ending revelation if it happens. At that point, all the flexibility in the world might not be enough to justify playing on.

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