The Portland Timbers return to the pitch in the MLS is Back Tournament Monday, facing the LA Galaxy at ESPN's Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, Florida. The tournament game will be the first match the team has played in nearly four months since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
Major League Soccer is the first of North America's major men's professional sports leagues to return to play, despite the country's surge in COVID-19 cases. But Timbers players and staff said they've been vigilant with maintaining strict health protocols such as wearing masks and distancing within their team bubble. They're also being regularly tested.
“The priority has always been, and continues to be, the health of the players and the health of our environment in the Portland Timbers,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said in a media briefing Saturday.
“We always have to be cautious, we always have to be smart — we always have to make sure that we respect this situation, this moment, this virus. Never feeling so comfortable that you then forget the things you must do in order to keep safe.”
In Orlando, two teams have had to leave the tournament due to COVID-19 cases among players. F.C. Dallas and Nashville SC players and staff have tested positive for the disease since arriving in Orlando.
In light of the pandemic, players and staff will operate in near-empty stadiums, as opposed to in front of roaring crowds.
“I feel safe. I think the league is trying to do the best [to maintain] the highest protocols to keep every player safe, [and] people on the staff — I think we feel safe,” Timbers midfielder Diego Chara said.
MLS also announced early Sunday that the match between D.C. United and Toronto is postponed due to an unconfirmed positive COVID-19 case for one player, and an inconclusive test for another. Florida health officials reported the highest number of new COVID-19 cases in a single day by any state since the coronavirus pandemic began, with 15,299 new reported cases Sunday.
Players said due to the long hiatus amid the pandemic, the upcoming matches may feel a bit like a preseason game. But the tournament is anything but: it features a $1.1 million prize pool for players, and results will count toward regular season standings.
“Obviously the rhythm of the games, after four months with no games, it’s not going to be the same. But that’s our job: we are going to try to perform, be smart in the game to manage all of the conditions,” said Timbers midfielder Diego Valeri.
“Even if you’re not in the best level of physicality, you can perform, play a good game and get the win.”
The Portland Timbers face the LA Galaxy Monday at 7:30 p.m. PST.