Philadelphia Union COVID-Gate: Here’s What Happened, and it’s Complicated

Photo Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia Union lost 2-1 in the MLS Eastern Conference Final on Sunday night at Subaru Park. Due to COVID issues, 11 players were forced into health and safety protocols and were unavailable to play the game, so the Union took the field minus five starters, which included 75% of their defense and one of the best goalkeepers in the league, Andre Blake.

I talked to a half-dozen people to try to get the full story of this outbreak, and what exactly happened. There are a lot of moving parts and timelines and time frames, and various things that need to be merged together, but the truth is that there are multiple COVID sources that may have all contributed to these 11 guys being out.

Here’s what I learned:

  1. in addition to players, there were staffers who tested positive
  2. one of the possible sources is a player’s significant other
  3. a second player was in contact with a family member, who traveled to the United States from overseas
  4. Olivier Mbaizo reportedly contracted COVID (possibly the Omicron variant) during the recent pair of games in Africa, and brought it back to Philadelphia
  5. the Twitter-fueled birthday party rumor wasn’t an issue (there were players there who were cleared for Sunday)
  6. I was told that no players broke the rules and that this was “more of a bad luck, unfortunate type of thing”

The sources I spoke with noted that bullets 2, 3, and 4 were all taking place in the same time frame, and didn’t rule out all three playing a part in the outbreak, but stressed that bullet point #4 deserves the focus.

For background here, Mbaizo and Jamiro Monteiro went to Africa in November for World Cup qualifiers with Cameroon and Cape Verde, respectively. Jamiro was in Mindelo, Cape Verde, and Lagos, Nigeria, then entered health and safety protocols and was not able to play in the November 20th playoff game against New York Red Bulls. He was cleared to play against Nashville on November 28th and NYC FC on December 5th.

Mbaizo went first to Johannesburg, South Africa, a COVID hot spot, and played 90 minutes against Malawi on the 13th. He then came off the bench on the 16th against the Ivory Coast, which was played in Douala, Cameroon. Mbaizo also entered MLS health and safety protocols, but unlike Monteiro, he missed the Red Bull AND Nashville games and was only cleared to play on Sunday evening.

Additionally, Mbaizo’s Cameroon squad was dealing with COVID issues after that international window. Striker Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting tested positive while reporting back to Bayern Munich, and several teammates were put into quarantine as contact cases. Mbaizo’s teammate Nouhou Tolo, who plays in MLS for Seattle, also missed a playoff game here in the States due to health and safety rules.

The sources I spoke with could not rule out scenarios #2 and #3 playing a part in the team-wide outbreak, but pointed towards the Mbaizo situation as being the more likely issue. They did note that the team-wide COVID cases were not serious, and felt that if MLS protocols had been more recently updated, that perhaps the players would have cleared and been able to play. Every Union player is vaccinated and tested regularly, and manager Jim Curtin noted last night after the game that the players at home were “completely healthy.” Those comments came during his postgame press conference.

I know fans were looking for a more concrete answer, but there were multiple things going on here at the same time. Sources reiterated that this wasn’t the result of any kind of reckless behavior or decision making.

EDIT –

My understanding is that the testing was a little funky, like positive one day, negative the next day, and this all lingered for a bit. That PERHAPS would explain why Olivier was able to clear but others went into the protocol later on. Keep in mind, if it’s an Omicron thing, we’re still learning about the new variant and don’t have a ton of data on it right now. I can’t confirm 100% if it definitely was Omicron, but the Cameroon team was in an Omicron COVID hot spot three weeks ago.

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