RSL players express doubts about Orlando ‘bubble’ scenario proposed by MLS

Real Salt Lake defender Nick Besler. | Photo courtesy of Real Salt Lake.

Major League Soccer has put forth a plan to get all 26 of its teams together for a tournament beginning July 1. They’d have to first arrive in Orlando by June 1 and go through some quarantine and incremental training scenarios before games actually start, but that’s the proposal out there being discussed by the league and the players union.

There are some drawbacks, though, as Real Salt Lake midfielder Nick Besler outlined Friday during a Zoom call with media. Besler is one of the team’s player representatives for the MLS Players Association.

Players would spend around 60 days at the sprawling ESPN Wide World of Sports complex, per the current proposal. Besler said the June 1 date was a quick turnaround and it seemed like plan was “a little bit rushed.”

“It’s a big ask for all of the players to spend that many days away from their families,” Besler said.

Families would not be allowed to travel to Orlando. Some players, like RSL midfielder Damir Kreilach, are expecting newborn children in the immediate future — in Kreilach’s case, early July — making a 60-day soccer sojourn be a particularly difficult conundrum.

“That’s essentially asking Damir to choose to go to Orlando and play a handful of games to miss the birth of his child,” Belser said, “In my opinion, that’s not the most fair to ask somebody to do.”

Besler said the players are trying to negotiate shortening the length of time players would be in Florida. And as of right now, the union is operating under the impression that no players would opt out.

“We would want it to be all the players,” Besler said. “It would be weird situation if you had a couple of teammates from every team sitting back at home. And with finances and everything, we don’t really know how any of that would play out as of now.”

The finances portion Besler mentioned points to a side conversation between the league and the union having to do with a potential 20% in player salaries. Adding to the complications surrounding that and the Orlando proposal is the fact that the collective bargaining agreement tentatively agreed to in February has not yet been ratified.

“Everything right now, in terms of negotiating, is on the table,” Besler said. “We want to play and we want to get paid what we believe is right.”

While playing games would be fun and a welcome change to the current situation, Besler said there are some concerns surround incentives. Right now, the proposal calls for a winner of the Orlando tournament, but not much else other than “bragging rights,” he said.

“In five years, no one is really going to remember who won the Disney Cup — whatever they are going to call it,” Besler said.

RSL goalkeeper Zac MacMath said there “needs” to be some type of incentive if the Orlando proposal came to fruition.

“We don’t want it be a preseason tournament, essentially,” MacMath said. “You want it to be serious play where guys care and are fighting for something like it would be in a regular season game.”

Besler said another concern for players is teams would have to play games at 9 a.m. to fill a TV slot. And with players normally having pregame meals about four hours before kickoff, starting that early wouldn’t benefit them.

“I don’t think any player has really played a game at 9 a.m. since maybe middle school,” Besler said. “So in that sense, it seems a little bit amateur.”

The viability of the proposal lies in whether it’s safe for everyone involved, whether there would be enough tests for the players and what would happen if a player tests positive for COVID-19. The potential for positive tests extends beyond a short tournament in Orlando.

Besler and MacMath said there will have to be a level of acceptance that players will eventually test positive for the coronavirus if and when play resumes. Besler said there should be an attempt not to think of a positive test as a negative moving forward.

MacMath said positive tests were “inevitable,” but could present a problem.

“If that were to happen, we don’t know what the protocol would be for that, but it would definitely be something that everyone involved would have to be OK with,” MacMath said. “And if we can’t get everyone on board, I’m not sure how we can figure it out.”

But whether it’s the Orlando idea or something else, there is a desire for players to return to the field.

“We’re trying to work something out because, at the end of the day, we want to play games,” Besler said. “And we want to do it with parameters that make sense to us players as well.”