Real Salt Lake completed its first training session in Orlando on Monday in preparation for Major League Soccer’s return-to-play tournament.
But the team is without one its best defenders and fan favorite in Nedum Onuoha, who opted out of the MLS is Back Tournament, multiple sources told The Salt Lake Tribune. Onuoha did not travel with the team when it left Saturday afternoon.
Salt Lake’s first game of the tournament is scheduled for Sunday against the Colorado Rapids.
RSL captain Kyle Beckerman did not mention Onuoha directly, but said he supports any player’s decision not to play in the tournament.
“This is just such bizarre times right now,” Beckerman said Monday in a videoconference call. “Everybody’s got their own thing going on in trying to work through this pandemic. So I totally understand if guys can’t make it down here. They’re trying to do what’s best for them.”
The RSL center back is the second player who will reportedly skip the tournament, which kicks off Wednesday. LAFC star Carlos Vela, who scored the most goals in the league in 2019, also won’t play, according to The Los Angeles Times.
MLS players are required to participate in the tournament unless they meet certain specific criteria, per the collective bargaining agreement with the players union and the league. If a player chooses not to participate without permission, he is “subject to penalties pursuant to the CBA,” an MLSPA spokesperson told The Tribune.
Onuoha opting out is a loss for RSL. But the team might have more to worry about.
“There’s just a lot of unknowns that we have in our minds,” Beckerman said. “Just trying to do all the right things to just stay safe. We’re putting a lot of trust in the league to make sure that we’re safe.”
Multiple players and staff from around the league have tested positive for COVID-19, including on teams like FC Dallas, Nashville SC and the Colorado Rapids. Some tested positive before arriving to Orlando, some afterward. The Rapids were one of teams that postponed their arrival to the MLS “bubble” due to positive tests.
Some games have already been postponed to later dates due to positive tests. RSL goalkeeper Zac MacMath said the schedule changes are part what makes the situation difficult for players.
“We just don’t know anything about what’s happening with those teams, whats happening with the schedule — if it’s being pushed back like the Dallas game — or what’s really happening,” MacMath said.
MacMath added that the information RSL players have received comes from players on other teams.
“They’re rumors, you don’t know what’s true and what’s not,” MacMath said.
The NBA is getting ready to embark on the resumption of its season with a “bubble” in Orlando, while the National Women’s Soccer League has been playing a tournament in Utah for the last week its own “bubble.” Both leagues allowed its players to choose whether they wanted to participate.
Beckerman said the tournament sounds like fun and there’s definitely a feeling that players are getting hyped to play in it. At the same time, however, the uncertainty allows doubts to creep in, raising questions about the tournament’s viability.
“It’s kind of this mixed emotions going on,” Beckerman said.
But with just a few days left until RSL’s first game, MacMath said all there’s left to do now is make the best of the situation and find the excitement to play soccer again after months of hiatus.
“Obviously there’s plenty of things to worry about once you’re off the field,” MacMath said. “But once we’re on the field, just working together in trying to find the best chemistry to play Colorado next week.”