By Ben Wright, editor.
NASHVILLE, TN - Players will take the training field tomorrow in Nashville, but it will look very different from any other May afternoon in Major League Soccer history. A previous training session would involve a loud, fast-paced scrimmage, not too dissimilar from a typical match. That won't be the case tomorrow, when players will keep their distance from each other on the field and closely follow a strict set of protocols to stay protected from COVID-19.
"It’s easy to kind of get drunk on the whole euphoria like, 'we’re back'", Nashville SC General Manager Mike Jacobs told reporters on a conference call on Thursday. "The reality is that it’s a return to training protocol, that will allow our players to do the same workouts they’ve been doing in public parks."
Since the 2020 season was suspended nearly two months ago, Nashville players have been given individualized workout regimens to maintain their fitness as best as possible, while getting a few touches on the ball. The catch is that they've had to do this on their own, using the Pelaton bikes the club distributed in addition to whatever public parks they could access.
The return to training is "the safest option for our players to maintain their fitness", according to Jacobs, who pointed out the privacy and pristine surface at the Currey Ingram training fields is a major upgrade from the public parks and potential fan interruptions players had been dealing with.
"When you go to Currey Ingram, you know exactly what you're dealing with", said midfielder and captain Dax McCarty. "I've been trying to go and into the community and go to different parks while keeping my distance from other people, but you never know what kind of bumps you're going to run into... Having the mental aspect to be able to get back on a familiar field, and to know there's an end in sight for us to potentially return to games, does wonders for your mentality."
The return to individual training is just the first in a long road to getting games back underway, with players and staff adhering to a strict social distancing policy while at the training facility. These protocols include:
Designated parking spots at least three spaces away from other cars.
Wearing gloves and masks to training.
Having temperatures scanned and filling out questionnaires before entering the facility.
Fields divided into four zones, with only one player allowed in each zone during training.
Using sanitizing station before putting on masks and gloves after training.
Closely tracking any movement outside their homes to limit contact with others.
Both Jacobs and McCarty referred to the new training protocols as a baby step on the road back to games.
"This is a really critical stage not only for Nashville, but for our whole league," said Jacobs. "How well our team and league maintains this phase one protocol will be key to moving on to stage two and eventually stage three. I think if we do a good job, we’ll be able to move forward. If there are hiccups, we may move further back in our ability to bring games to the field."
If the new protocol goes smoothly, clubs will eventually move to small-sided training sessions and eventually full training ahead of a return to games. How long would it take for players to be fully ready for a match after full training resumes?
"Realistically, and if you were to take the total commitment of what everyone would need to do to get ready to play, I think you’d need four weeks. Four weeks is probably a fair timeline," said McCarty.
Jacobs agreed. "My guess is you’re probably looking at four weeks. A lot is going to depend on how things go this week. We need as few people at this facility as possible to make sure our players are kept healthy. That’s our best chance at moving to the next phase later this month. Depending on how things go in this first phase, that’ll give you some indication on how quickly we can move to phase two."
While there will likely be a while yet before players take the field for a competitive match, both Jacobs and McCarty are clearly eager to get things rolling.
"Everyone understands that we need to get on the field as soon as possible," said Jacobs. "I think our country needs that, our fans need that. And our players and staff need that."
"I can tell you this," added McCarty. "Whenever they tell us that we can play games again, I’m going to be ready to go."