Despite The Pandemic, Atlanta United Returns To The Pitch
Atlanta United is the first professional sports team from Georgia to return to play during the coronavirus pandemic. Major League Soccer suspended play in March less than a month into the season.
GPB Sports' Jon Nelson joined GPB All Things Considered host Rickey Bevington to explain why Saturday night's soccer match will be anything but normal.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness
Rickey Bevington: So what is this tournament and what precautions is MLS taking to keep players and staff safe?
Jon Nelson: Well, the tournament is referred to as "MLS Is Back." And what MLS has done is take all of the players from the participating teams and put them in what they're referring to as a bubble at the Wide World of Sports complex outside of Orlando. It’s in the Disney complex. They're at the Swan Hotel and Resort. Players are in there, tested every other day, and everyone is being socially distanced. You have your practice time, but a lot of your time is spent in your own room and just making sure that you are as safe as possible when you're ready to play.
Bevington: Have any rules of play during the game changed?
Nelson: There's a couple. Instead of the normal three substitutions that we're used to seeing - three player swaps - you're going to have five. And this is something that has been there universally with every league that has come back on the planet, like Germany and England and all these other leagues that wanted to come back. The international governing body said, "OK. We'll give you five substitutions instead of three." But you can only do it at certain times. You can't just do it at like the 13th minute, the 38th minute and then the 80th minute. There are windows and one of those windows is also at halftime. There are hydration breaks which gives coaches a time out where they can sit there and look at the first 25 minutes or so and go, "OK, let's work on this, work on this and work on this." And the roster sizes, obviously - since this is the first time in a couple of months that these teams have been able to play - the rosters are a little bigger so players can be with their teams and coaches have a little bit more depth to choose from when it comes to their lineups.
Bevington: Jon, I understand teams are each making different kinds of on-field statements about the Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name movements. What are you seeing on the pitch so far?
Nelson: The first match that we had in "MLS Is Back" dealt with Orlando and the team in Miami. And what you saw were 170 players come out that were not from those teams and they stood on the pitch and they stood in silence with right hands raised with black gloves on for eight minutes and 46 seconds. And that was a very powerful image that the league did as a whole. Then what you also see is each team taking a knee before games are started, right before the whistle happens. Players will take a knee on both sides. The officials take knees as well as a show of respect. You had one of the coaches last night who knelt on the sideline for eight minutes and 46 seconds in remembrance of George Floyd and everything that we're seeing these days. And a really powerful statement was made by the Philadelphia team yesterday morning where they didn't tell Major League Soccer that they were going to do this, but they came out and they took off their "Black Lives Matter" MLS T-shirts and instead of their own names on the backs of their jerseys were the names of those who had been killed through abuse and brutality. So it was a very powerful statement by the Philadelphia team yesterday morning as well.
Bevington: Finally, Jon, what are Atlanta's chances tomorrow night against the New York Red Bulls and in the tournament?
Nelson: Good. Well, let's put it that way. I think that if you look at Atlanta United, I would say at least the Final Four appearance should be what they're looking for. When you have a coach that is as experienced as Frank de Boer - because really this looks like a World Cup setup right now where you have Group Stage and then you have Knockout - so anybody who's a fan of the World Cup, that's what you're getting here with MLS Is Back and having a coach that is as experienced as Frank de Boer is as a player and as a coach in these situations. It's pretty good. And you're going up against a team in New York, the Red Bulls, first time out of the blocks, who's lost a lot of their firepower offensively and defensively. And they haven't replaced it like-for-like. So I would anticipate a good result coming out of the blocks in this first match tomorrow night.
Bevington: Quickly, Jon, are our players healthy? How's everybody's health right now?
Nelson: Everybody is good. The positive tests before they left Atlanta and came into the bubble, they have returned subsequent tests that are negative. And also really it's the conditioning aspect and all of this because they've only played really two and a half matches in the last eight months. So think of it as when you're starting your car in a very cold day. It's going to take a while for the engine to get warm. That's what you may see with play in this tournament. And with Atlanta United you know they're champing at the bit.