TUKWILA, Wash. — It was a scene that seemed in equal parts “bon voyage” send-off and funeral procession.
The Emerald City Supporters — the most popular supporters’ group backing the Seattle Sounders — made their way out to Starfire Sports on Friday afternoon to see off their beloved team as they head to Orlando to participate in the MLS is Back tournament.
There was the usual atmosphere on display from ECS, if scaled down for a non-gameday occasion. Flags, singing, and a bit of smoke permeated the area as Sounders eventually made their way on buses past a little over 100 socially-distanced fans to catch their charter. Underneath the pomp and circumstance, though, was a feeling of unease as the supporters watched the Sounders pass them on the way to the airport. Nobody really wanted them to leave.
The dramatic increase in coronavirus cases has upended life in the United States. The seeming lack of a coordinated response, combined with the usual political knife fights, has left the United States in a position where many states are pulling back from opening up businesses. Florida, which by all accounts never really enforced mask wearing or social distancing, is in the midst of a massive increase in infections. MLS decided to hold the tournament there in part because of the lax rules, having a partnership with Disney/ESPN which would allow them to use the vast facilities at Disney World, and to fulfill television and corporate sponsorships.
The increase in cases leaves Florida as the leader in positive tests in the United States. Orange County, the host county for the tournament, has seen an increase in positive cases as well.
The concern was palpable, with the Sounders now in transit to Orlando. Once they land, they will immediately be tested for COVID-19 and quarantined for at least 12 hours as they await the results of the tests. Only after they all test negative will they be able to continue training for the tournament. Already, the scene in Orlando is one of uncertainty, with a significant percentage of the FC Dallas delegation testing positive. Ten Dallas players and staff members have seen positive results return, and the entire team has been quarantined. Their status for the tournament — and increasingly the status of the tournament itself — is up in the air.
If the concern on the part of Sounders fanbase was obvious, so too was the anger at MLS. While the relationship between ECS and MLS has always been strained at best, the decision to hold the tournament in one of the so-called “Covid hot zones” has not gone over particularly well with fans across the league and with ECS in particular. The group released a statement opposing the Sounders’ participation in the tournament prior to their departure, pleading with MLS to reconsider.
We encourage fans and supporters of Seattle Sounders FC (and all MLS clubs) to contemplate the risks being forced upon their teams. The league and their media partners are assuming we will tune in to their broadcasts and other content. Entertainment is not worth the health and careers of the players and teams we support, and we encourage all fans and supporters to reach out to club and league officials and social media outlets to put an end to this dangerous tournament.
As ECS sent the Sounders off, several pointed signs were on display to let their frustration be known. Much of the chatter from fans in attendance focused on the fear of one or more players contracting the virus while in the so-called “MLS Bubble,” as well as the adequacy of the testing procedures in light of the fact that not all personnel will be quarantined or tested.
Sounders head coach Brian Schmetzer got a first-hand view as he unexpectedly made his way out to the assembled crowd to say a few words. Clad in a green Sounders face mask and sporting a Black Lives Matter shirt, the head coach said a few words of appreciation for the support and indicated a bit of uncertainty in the decision to participate in the tournament, admitting that if it were up to him, he probably wouldn’t have his team go. But in his customary fashion, Schmetzer said that if they’re going to play, they’re going to play to win.
“I know some of you guys are concerned,” Schmetzer said, addressing the elephant in the room. “I get it, I understand it, it wouldn’t be my choice maybe either.”
That said, with the task laid out in front of them, Schmetzer said the team will head down to Florida with the goal of coming back with the top prize. “We’re going to go play games and we’re going to do what Sounders do and win soccer games,” he emphasized.
“We’re going to go Florida and try to make all of you proud,” Schmetzer added, his voice every so slightly cracking with emotion. With a bus to catch, he then closed with the only thing that seemed appropriate under the circumstances: “Everybody stay safe.”