Hard to believe, but a Philadelphia sports team plays a game tomorrow.
Philadelphia Union vs. New York City FC, bright and early at 9 a.m. on ESPN, a national television treat for a team that typically is seen locally on PHL17.
It’s a big opportunity for the Union, who are staying right now about five miles from where the Sixers will post up in Orlando, a separate portion of Disney World, which is hosting both the MLS and NBA returns to play.
The sailing wasn’t totally smooth, not for Major League Soccer, which had to pull FC Dallas from this tournament due to a rash of positive infections in the team. Another squad, Nashville, may also be sent home after a recent surge in COVID cases.
That’s an understandable cause for concern, but the Union have a grand total of zero positive cases, and they’re ready for their first game since March 8th, right before the Coronavirus brought everything to a screeching halt.
“The mood is great,” said forward Kacper Pryzbylko, speaking to media via Zoom call. “I think we’re just focused on our job here, and we’re just having fun, hanging out together. Personally, I’m over it, and just looking at what my team is doing here and not what the other teams are doing. It’s very unlucky, because it was supposed to be a great tournament for everybody here, but that’s how it is, so we’re just doing the best we can with it.”
Pryzbylko was diagnosed with COVID-19 a few months ago and has since made a successful recovery. He was asked if that experience has caused him to take health and safety precautions more seriously in Orlando, but the 27-year-old German-born striker, who scored 15 goals last season, isn’t fazed by the earlier scare.
“It doesn’t affect me at all,” he admitted. “I have to take care like all others are doing right now. It doesn’t matter if you had the virus or didn’t have it; if you just follow all of the rules here everyone is going to be fine. I don’t know what happened with the other two teams, but I think my team, all of them are doing a great job here and following all of the safety and health instructions. If everybody is doing their job and being professional, then I think everything is going to be good.”
The Union had just begun their season when COVID hit, having played two road games prior to the pandemic. One was a 2-0 loss in Dallas, and the other was a thrilling 3-3 draw in Los Angeles that saw center back Jakob Glesnes bang in a 40-yard free kick.
When the Union kick off tomorrow morning, it will have been 123 days between matches.
“I’m looking forward to the game because I was missing that competition,” Pryzbylko said. “I think we’re doing a great job here in Orlando with the training. It’s very hot and the humidity is very tough, but I think we’re going to be well-prepared for the game. And I want to say it again – we shouldn’t use the virus as an excuse. I think we all agreed to the terms and the terms are very good here, so let’s just be professional, do our job, and have fun in this game.”
Captain Alejandro Bedoya is probably the most outspoken player on the team, and rarely offers canned quotes or bullshit answers. He expressed some concerns over the Orlando plan in May, referring to the bubble concept as a “luxurious prison” and sharing his preference for regional play instead.
“I would say some guys are obviously anxious,” said Bedoya of the positive COVID results. “It is worrisome seeing (other team’s) cases. The thing is, Dallas and Nashville, those are clubs that obviously came here, contracted the virus from their market, in-market, and so I guess that’s a positive sign, you know? That they didn’t get it in this bubble, because if that was the case we could be in trouble down here.”
Dallas traveled to Orlando on June 27th, coming from a state with lax COVID-19 health and safety restrictions. The Union, meantime, started working out in Delaware before Pennsylvania guidelines made it possible for a return to Chester, and as such, the team went to Florida 100% virus free.
“With our team, you could take a little bit of pride in saying that our club has no positive test results, and that’s a credit to the staff and our players,” Bedoya explained. “I think as soon as we resumed full team training, (head coach) Jim Curtin was adamant in saying ‘let’s not be that one team that really can mess this all up.’ At the end of the day we’re competitive and we want to play. With that being said, you can still sense some anxiety. It’s eerily quiet in here, and as a guy who grew up in Florida going to Disney, these hotels are packed with kids and families and babies crying and stuff like that. You guys know where I stood against this tournament, I was very skeptical about it, and I don’t think the bubble has been burst yet, so to speak. Those teams (Dallas and Nashville), have been put into a different wing of the hotel, into isolation and quarantine.”
Alejandro Bedoya, from the USA TODAY NETWORK via Imagn Content Services, LLC
More than anything, we’re past the point of no return. Sure, MLS can always cancel the tournament, and if cases spread inside the bubble, they’ll certainly be justified in pulling the plug, but there’s also an opportunity for the league to have some exclusive eyeballs on the product, a rare chance to snatch national television time slots while football, basketball, baseball, and hockey are not being played.
“The fact is that we’re here now,” said Bedoya. “We can play this blame game all the time, but something I’ve said as a captain is that we need to hold each other accountable down here. We need to make sure our guys are looking after one another, that we’re social distancing and wearing our masks or practicing good hygiene, washing hands, all of those little things that could make an impact. Because you try to stay as positive and optimistic as possible.”
“Let’s try to look forward to positive things instead of always doom and gloom and negativity.”