ST. PETERSBURG — At first glance, the Rowdies’ training sessions at Al Lang Stadium don’t look any different than usual.
But social-distancing measures clearly are in place.
Players’ temperatures are checked before they enter the facility. They change in and out of their cleats in designated areas. There’s no contact play. They work in groups of no more than four. A trainer wears a face mask.
When they resumed practice last week, the Rowdies became the area’s first professional sports team to return to the field in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Pretty much the bane of any soccer player’s existence is the first 10 minutes of every soccer training when you just set up in boxes or whatever and you do passing drills," said Rowdies midfielder Zach Steinberger. “And let me tell you, I’ve never been more excited to do passing drills with my teammates in my life. Granted, that’s all pretty much we can do, but it’s been incredible getting back with the guys.”
But how and when their season will resume remains uncertain.
Practices are a first step toward a potential return, but there are many hurdles to overcome before games can take place at Al Lang Stadium in 2020. The USL Championship league, the recognized second-tier league of U.S. professional soccer, is considering several scenarios to resume the season, which was postponed as it was getting started. Most teams played just one game before play was halted.
League teams provide housing for players, who room together. And when the season was postponed, players quarantined together. As a result, they are able to practice in small groups before other soccer leagues, which still are limited to individual activities.
All but one player on the Rowdies roster remained in the area. Defender Lucas Lomas’ mother was visiting when the pandemic broke out, and he returned to England with her. Since the 19-year-old is on loan from Norwich City, he can work with them as English Premier League teams begin to resume training.
The USL, which is based in Tampa, plans to propose a return to play within the next two weeks. A wide range of scenarios are being considered, including potentially playing the full 34-match regular season and playoffs. But that possibility becomes less likely with each passing day.
The league is considering a regionalized schedule, which would limit travel and help with expenses, and a tournament-only model if too much time passes to allow for regular-season play. The league realistically has up until late summer to start play.
If games do resume, they could be without fans or with limited capacity — a percentage of the seats filled to allow for social distancing. That will be made in compliance with local and state public health authorities. If there is a possibility for full-capacity stadiums, the league will consider it. Any proposal would need approval
from the league’s board of governors.
“You can’t skip any steps in this process, because the stakes are too high,” said Ryan Madden, the USL’s vice president of communications and public relations. “We are confident we’re going to return to play, but we’re only going to do it in a way that makes sure the safety and wellness of our players, staff and ultimately our supporters are being well looked after. I think that’s a societal obligation of ours, and we take it very seriously.”
Typically the league would take cues from Major League Soccer, the U.S.'s first-tier league, but MLS is strongly considering a hub model, where teams would play out of on centralized site. It is a format MLS can implement — potentially playing games without fans outside of their home cities — because of its lucrative broadcast-rights deal with ESPN. Orlando is being considered as a potential MLS hub city, with games being played mostly at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney World.
The USL can’t duplicate that model. Though the league has its own broadcast-rights deal with ESPN, it reportedly is in the low seven figures, so it pales in comparison to that of MLS and other professional leagues. USL teams make most of their revenue on game days through ticket and concession sales, parking and match-day advertising partnerships.
The Rowdies ranked 11th among 35 teams last year in attendance, averaging 5,418 fans over 17 home dates.
On the field, Rowdies head coach Neill Collins said players likely would need at least a three-week preseason to prepare adequately.
“It’s a great balance,” he said. “We all want to get back. The players want to get back to playing games but have to consider the product we want here. We want the players to last the test of time. And our players have done well in maintaining their fitness.
"But maintaining football fitness or soccer fitness is very, very tough training on your own. It’s impossible, because you need to be playing in real matches and real game situations. We’ll make the best of whatever comes.”
Another obstacle is coming to an agreement with the players on an economic proposal that would cut wages to defray club revenue losses.
The players’ union, which is recognized by the league but still in the process of negotiating its first collective bargaining agreement, rejected the league’s proposal. In its counter-proposal, the union offered to take a 10-percent pay cut for the remaining season for players making more than $2,000 a month if the league matches the players’ salary cuts and agrees to a minimum salary in 2021 and more CBA negotiating.
Salaries in the USL Championship league have a wide range based on a player’s experience and how teams operate and invest in payroll. But Connor Tobin, one of the union’s executive directors, said Wednesday that, “Given the diversity of that, there’s a subsection in this league that it’s a struggle to make ends meet, and they’re thinking about their next paycheck. But those guys are invested in the sport and are committed to helping to build this thing, because they see their own futures tied to it."
Meanwhile, it’s been more than 10 weeks since the Rowdies won their first and only game of the season.
Collins has had video conferences with his staff twice a week since then, and coaches have kept in constant contact with players. Though they’ve resumed training, the season remains very much in limbo.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” Steinberger said. “When I have conversations with guys in my locker room, that’s what they want to know. When are we going to be able to play, and what is it going to look like?”
It is one of many questions Collins still can’t answer.
“When the time comes and we’re told what’s happening, we’ll make decisions and plan around that, but until then, you can’t worry too much about things you can’t control,” he said. “If we don’t play, we’ll deal with that. If we do play in front of fans, that would be amazing. If we don’t play in front of fans but we get the opportunity to play ...
"There’s too many different scenarios, and what the league format looks like I don’t know. But we’ll be bustling to play the season again. The strangest thing about us is that there’s no experience to fall back on.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.