Waking up on March 11, 2020 the Covid-19 pandemic seemed like something that was mostly a problem on distant shores. Sure, there were school closures, major employers started to transition to remote work, and other protective measures were in place here. But the largest stories of sorrow were focused on Europe and Asia. European soccer teams were already shutting out some fans. A handful of college basketball games had delays or closed-door games planned.
But even when the Sounders warned fans to stay away if they felt unsafe for the March 8 match against the Columbus Crew, the pandemic felt far enough away that more than 30,000 fans showed up to watch the game. There was no mask mandate, no stay-home order.
By the end of March 11, 2020, the pandemic’s impact beyond just its threat to health became quite real — America’s team sports stopped. As it would turn out, the last soccer match played in the United States was at Cheney Field between the Tacoma Defiance and San Diego Loyal
That would be my last time in the broadcast booth until July. It was the last time that a first team player was bounced between Sounders and Defiance. It was the Day That Sports Stopped.
Justin Dhillon, now with San Antonio FC in the USL Championship, told Sounder at Heart that his focus for that match was to work on fitness and form, preparing for a season ready to help Seattle Sounders FC in whatever way they needed.
“As far as I was concerned, it was like, ‘you need to get some minutes.’ So just you know, for the next Sounders game coming up — just to be sharper, be ready to be called upon in the next match,” Dhillon said. “I think that was the perspective going into it was like, you know, you’re playing in this game, which obviously, try and three points, but there’s gonna be another one afterwards.”
For the players, at least, things were relatively normal. With short rest after the home opener and a set of First Team players available Tacoma Defiance Head Coach Chris Little had a mix of players ready to challenge Landon Donovan’s San Diego Loyal.
Doing match prep for this ESPN+ broadcast we focused on Donovan, his assembly of former MLS players, and the Tacoma men looking to Seattle for inspiration and motivation. Defiance had a crew of now-veterans, no longer boys, that put together a second half of 2019 as a competitive team.
In the stadium we were focused on cleanliness in ways that reminded me of Basic Training inspections merged with an announced restaurant health inspection. If fans were going to be around, every surface would be sanitized, multiple times. The newly installed hand sanitizer stations flanked every doorway with a few extras scattered around as well.
At 11:30 a.m. things changed. The club sent an email that the match would be closed to fans.
TACOMA DEFIANCE STATEMENT ON GOVERNOR INSLEE ANNOUNCEMENT
For Immediate Release: March 11, 2020
TACOMA, WASH. - After learning of Governor Inslee’s announcement, the decision has been made to play Wednesday evening’s USL Championship match behind closed doors at Cheney Stadium. With San Diego Loyal’s squad already in town to play the contest, we have been in touch with the United Soccer League, regional government agencies and health authorities about the best path forward. Because Cheney Stadium will be closed to the public, it has been deemed safe to proceed with Tacoma Defiance’s second match of the season. Fans will be able to watch the game on ESPN+, and it has already been determined that the club’s home match on Sunday, March 22 versus Oklahoma City is set to be rescheduled. As this situation remains fluid, the club is in real-time communication with key community stakeholders, and we will continue to provide updates as new information becomes available.
- DEFIANTLY TACOMA -
That change, though somewhat expected, caused a sudden flurry of activity. Emails, phone calls, social, web — the org, of which I was a full-time employee at the time, focused on letting fans and media know of the change.
For myself, play-by-play man Andrew Harvey, and the rest of the broadcast team we started to think about how the broadcast would change. There would be no fan noise. Some field mics were added. Andrew and myself decided to use a few more words to fill empty space since the lack of cheering post-goal wouldn’t exist.
Our midday focused on the changes to presentation. We still didn’t know the extent of how our lives would change. A closed-door match, some minor re-scheduling of games, but we’d get through this.
We were wrong — very wrong.
My practice throughout 2019 was that about 90 minutes prior to kick, I’d move to the Bob Robertson Broadcast Booth (rest in peace sir). There I would settle into a routine with a few tokens for luck and comfort, verify match notes and broadcast reads, work through pronunciation with Harvey and Cheney Stadium voice Randy McNair, and start scribbling out the lineups.
The 90 minutes that day were different than any before. We’re on social media, looking for Loyal’s lineup announcement as the story breaks that the Oklahoma City Thunder team doctor has pulled both the Thunder and Utah Jazz from the floor. The story is in rapid development with changing details frequently.
We’re mostly just trying to figure out how to say Beverly Makangila’s name. He’s new to the league so there’s just not the film out there to verify it.
But word is getting out that not only is the Thunder-Jazz game off, the NBA is going through a shift. At one point, the only West Coast game was supposed to take the court. One of the two teams refused, as it became apparent that NBA players, paragons of health and fitness, could get and transmit the novel coronavirus. The NBA season paused for nearly four months.
Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert had mocked the potential to spread the virus just the day prior — touching reporters’ recorders and phones.
Dhillon and Defiance were doing their prematch warmups. They had no idea what was going on around the country.
“The whole Gobert story, that blew up. It wasn’t a great look for him or anyone in the sports industry. I don’t remember when I saw that, but I remember that moment,” Dhillon said.
The San Diego lineup featured nine changes from their opening night. Our scouting report, as basic as it was for a team with only a single match and a first-time coach, was useless. Adjusting on the fly is something broadcasting forces into you, so we would adjust.
Adapting to the match became more difficult. The real world and the impact of covid-19 would again flood our timelines. Tom Hanks was positive, the most famous person to contract the virus at that point.
Prepping for the match stopped almost completely when then-President Trump took to nationally televised airways with the next steps in his attempts to limit the spread of a virus he would eventually be stricken with.
Similar to the players on Tacoma, I’m young to the professional game. Spiraling toward kickoff, my high school debate/US Army brain was trying to push my broadcast brain out of the way. My past told me to think about the virus. My job said “let’s focus on a bit of soccer and have some fun.”
To be honest, I still don’t know which brain won that night. I have not gone back and re-watched that broadcast, something I’ve done with every other of my appearances on ESPN+ as analyst for S2/Defiance. There’s nothing to learn from the circumstances March 11, 2020.
When the whistle blew, the stands were empty. A handful a fans watched on Tightwad Hill. They were far enough away that their chants and cheers were a faint echo of normality.
Instead, every thump of the ball echoed through the famed South Sound palace of sport. Players swearing in frustration popped into the broadcast. Trey Muse could tell not just his backline where to go, but even his forward.
“It felt a bit like a scrimmage in a sense,” Dhillon said. “You hear everybody; you hear all the things. I can’t normally hear my defenders and midfielders sometimes. Then I could hear Trey shouting instructions.
“I think it’s hard to say because in that sense, it probably was a bit more of a freak thing, but after a whole year events like you’re used to it and it’s just feels so long ago now.”
Dhillon, like so many of us during the pandemic, has forgotten details about the Before Times. Dhillon had a strong performance, getting in his 90 minutes and scoring a goal. The Tacoma lineup featured seven players who ended 2020 on First Team contracts, including assist-man Shandon Hopeau.
On the pitch, Defiance and Loyal had no idea how much the world had just changed. On the broadcast, except during halftime, we had no clue either. Most parties were probably hopeful that the situation would be a pause of a few weeks. It was not.
Later that night, the small media contingent met with Dhillon postgame. It was the last time we were present with a player for postgame interviews, as the era of video conferences replaced standup interviews, even those at safe distances.
Tacoma was where Alex Roldan was supposed to learn how to be a right back. It was where Dhillon was supposed to score 10+ goals and keep ready to contribute to a Sounders’ run to another MLS Cup. Defiance were supposed to be the polishing point for more fringe MLS talents like Josh Atencio, Ethan Dobbeleare, Danny Leyva, Muse, and Alfonso Ocampo-Chavez.
Instead, the covid-19 pandemic changed everything.
Sports slammed to a halt. There were 108 days between pro soccer matches in the United States. The smattering of communities that allowed fans in stadiums during the 2020 season never came close to hitting their limited capacities.
Sports teams across the United States cut staff. Those outside of the major leagues cut dramatically. Without the funding from broadcast deals, costs had to be cut.
It’s been a year and the return to whatever is the Next Normal is unknowable. Vaccines help provide hope, but the industry is such that hundreds, if not thousands, of jobs are gone. Crowds are gone too, at least for now.
Dhillon has since moved to San Antonio FC. Still waiting for his time in line for vaccination, focusing helping them make the playoffs back-to-back. He follows his old Defiance teammates’ careers — Jesse Daley with Brisbane Roar, Nick Hinds with Nashville SC, Sam Rogers with Austin FC, and of course those with Sounders and Defiance still.
He also has a hopeful look forward for a sports industry that can help provide a bit of joy after a nation has lost half-a-million souls to the virus and countless more lives changed due to health or economic impacts.
“With vaccinations being rolled out now like hopefully that can allow more and more people to attend events they want to and you know, have somewhat of a like a normal life,” Dhillon said. “I know a lot of people have suffered on the health-wise and even just like the not having that normality is really, really hard to go through for anyone.”