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USL Championship’s return to play safer, more complete than other, bigger leagues. Here’s how they did it.

The league suspended its season in March, resumed it in July and is looking to complete it in October.
Al Lang Stadium opened its doors to a small, invite-only crowd for the Rowdies' game against Atlanta United 2 in July. The Rowdies were the first professional spots team in Tampa Bay to return to play.
Al Lang Stadium opened its doors to a small, invite-only crowd for the Rowdies' game against Atlanta United 2 in July. The Rowdies were the first professional spots team in Tampa Bay to return to play. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Aug. 14, 2020
Updated Aug. 15, 2020

Before the United Soccer League Championship suspended its season in March, league officials were already working on a plan for soccer to return to the communities that host its 35 teams, including the Rowdies.

The league, based in Tampa, wanted to return to playing games in home stadiums and do so safely after its season was derailed by the coronavirus pandemic. Playing in a bubble model, similar to what MLS and the NBA have done at Disney World, was not an option the USL Championship explored in depth.

The league didn’t have the luxury of following the lead of leagues with more money, resources and time. Still, the USL Championship came back before the NBA season resumed and major-league baseball held its opening day. Tests for coronavirus across the league have come back positive, but not in anything close to the numbers MLB have seen while trying to play in home stadiums.

Without major changes to the product on the field and excessive player absences due to quarantine, the USL Championship’s product on the field five weeks into the resumed season largely resembles what it looked like before the second week of March, when everything changed.

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It was important for the league to maintain its integrity in its return-to-play model, said Jake Edwards, president of the United Soccer League, USL Championship’s organizing body. So far, it has been able to do so.

The early planning and a strict, leaguewide adherence to health and safety protocols are why a season that started in March and resumed in July can reasonably be expected to be completed in October.

“It’s a great responsibility,” Edwards said of continuing a sports league during a pandemic. “We all feel it at the league office. We feel it across the clubs. Our owners and team executives feel it, as do the players.

“Everybody in the USL ecosystem is extremely proud that we were able to navigate an extremely tough situation and are continuing to do so.”

Edwards said the planning began internally before the season was even suspended March 12, with most teams, including the Rowdies, having played just one game. The league later discussed its plans with other professional soccer leagues, as well as medical experts at Northwestern University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Tennessee.

The results of those discussions manifested into what Edwards called a “living, breathing document” on the league’s website that spans 53 pages and governs protocols for games and practices across dozens of states.

Though the plan always was to have teams playing in their home stadiums, Edwards was unsure whether fans would be allowed to watch in person. The answer ended up being determined, like so many things today, case by case.

The Rowdies have allowed around 150 fans from their supporter groups into Al Lang Stadium for their games. Edwards said some teams are in regions that are not in a coronavirus phase that supports fan attendance, and even in those that are, no stadiums are operating at full capacity.

A limited amount of fans from Ralph's Mob fan club were invited to the Rowdies' first home game of the pandemic against the Atlanta United.
A limited amount of fans from Ralph's Mob fan club were invited to the Rowdies' first home game of the pandemic against the Atlanta United. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

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Aside from the health and safety logistics, there was the matter of reorganizing a season that normally would have teams travel across the country for 34 games.

The USL Championship more than halved the number of games, settling on a 16-game season that honored the results of matches already played. To limit travel, the league put teams into eight regional groups of four or five teams each and had them play mostly against group members.

The top two teams from each group make the playoffs, which became a single-elimination tournament.

Edwards’ Zoom communications with team owners, executives and players have helped his planning for an inordinate number of possibilities.

“If I look for a silver lining out of this challenge, it will be that we are coming through this as a league far stronger now and far more unified than we were going into it,” Edwards said. “And that, for me, will enable us to navigate any challenges that we face again moving forward.”

In the latest round of coronavirus testing, four players from three clubs tested positive out of 1,455 tests conducted between July 20 and July 27. Games have been delayed because of players testing positive, but the league has carried on.

Completing the season in October would be quite the accomplishment to celebrate the league’s 10-year anniversary.

“We were able to bring back professional (soccer) to our communities, and that is having a positive impact, whether or not there’s fans in the crowd,” Edwards said. “We’re seeing enormous increases in viewership on the broadcasts for our games, so it matters to people.

“It is a good thing that people are able to support their team and bring some levity into a tough situation that people are facing.”