Players worry about safety as MLS plans return to training
ATLANTA – The first day of small group training for Atlanta United and three other MLS teams, including Sporting Kansas City, was accompanied by ongoing worries from veteran defender Jeff Larentowicz about plans for a MLS tournament in Florida.
The first-day participation was voluntary and there was no contact as social distancing continued to protect players during the coronavirus pandemic.
That soon will change. Major League Soccer on Thursday said teams may resume training.
MLS announced that each player and staff member must complete two tests for the coronavirus 24 hours apart, 72 hours ahead of the start of training. Every player also must have a test for antibodies and a physical.
MLS announced other protocols for continued testing and restrictions, including spacing for locker rooms and limits on the number of players in training rooms and gyms.
As he looked ahead to the planned tournament in Orlando next month for all 26 teams, Larentowicz said he was nervous about the potential dangers.
"I can tell you they're taking 2,000 people's lives into their hands and they better have it sorted," Larentowicz said in a Zoom interview before MLS announced plans to open training. "So it's on them. We are soccer players and we want to play and it's their job now to keep us safe."
Nashville SC defender Daniel Lovitz said uncertainty about the Orlando plans has added to players' safety concerns. Matches are to be played without fans at ESPN's Wide World of Sports Complex at Disney World.
The tournament is an attempt to revive a season which was stopped on March 12 after only two matches had been played by each team.
"It's tough to know," Lovitz said. "We were going into this process asking the league lots of things like are we all going to have our own room? Are we going to be limited to our floor with our team when we're staying at the resort? Are we going to eat as a group or are we going to be eating individually? And we're starting to get answers on that stuff. But we don't really know what life is like if I'm being honest."
Larentowicz said many players have asked if participation in the tournament will be mandatory. He said he assumes players who don't participate would be fined.
Seattle Sounders midfielder Harry Shipp said team officials are "kind of fully acknowledging and understanding that not everyone wants to go. And a lot of them aren't because they don't want to play soccer, they just don't want to go. and I think the league has done a good job of calming any risks, like people being nervous about health risks or medical stuff."
Shipp said some players are concerned about being away from their families for so long.
Portland Timbers goalkeeper Steve Clark said shortening the time spent in Orlando made the proposal "more feasible."
"I can't say that it's certainly something that I'm happy about, leaving my wife, but I know we have a job to do and I'm certainly happy to be back playing soccer," Clark said. "So I think there's mixed feelings there with it."
Atlanta United president Darren Eales said the team would use a "case by case basis" approach to address concerns from players who don't feel they would be safe in the Orlando tournament.
"Hopefully we'll be able to make it where everybody feels safe to go," Eales said.
Larentowicz, 36, is one of seven members on the executive board of the players union which on Wednesday agreed with Major League Soccer on a six-year labor contract. The deal carries through the 2025 season.
Negotiations included a lockout threat from commissioner Don Garber.
Eales said the plan is to have home games played after the tournament. He said a playoff format "is still to be finalized."
Atlanta was one of the league's first four teams to open facilities for individual player workouts. Those sessions paved the way for Thursday's limited group work.
"They're here today and they've got smiles on their faces," Eales said, adding they are "first and foremost soccer players and they're doing what they love."
The love of soccer doesn't erase safety concerns.
"We play a contact sport and the virus is a serious thing that puts us all in danger," Larentowicz said.
AP Sports Writers Tim Booth in Seattle, Anne M. Peterson in Portland, Oregon, and Teresa Walker in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed to this report.