Small Steps: Vancouver Whitecaps “encouraged” by phase 1 of MLS’s return-to-play plan

MLS partly lifted their training moratorium this week, allowing teams to return to individual but voluntary training at their facilities, provided that social distancing rules were properly enforced. While not every team took that option, the Vancouver Whitecaps did, opening up their facility this Tuesday to their players, after which they took the time to share how things went, as they slowly inch towards a potential return.

After over two months away from action, the Vancouver Whitecaps took a small but crucial step on Tuesday, one that should help them push towards a potential return.

That was to commence individual and voluntary workouts at their UBC training ground, a step MLS allowed teams to take, at their own discretion, starting this week, giving organizations a chance to get their players together and back on the field. 

While there is to be no group instruction, with each player required to stay in their own corner of the field, it was the first chance in nearly 2 months to have the players return to the training ground, something of which they certainly didn’t imagine being the case when this whole COVID-19 pandemic started.

“I’m very happy to finally come back to the training ground,” Whitecaps winger David Milinkovic said Tuesday. “It’s (been a) difficult 2 months at home, every day, and finally I come back now for the training, it was the first session, I am so happy to come back and see everyone there, and I’m happy with the training today with the guys, from a distance still, but I’m happy to see everyone, and I hope the league can start very soon.”

“Yeah, it’s way better than to be at home,” added goalkeeper Max Crepeau. “(Instead of) in your apartment, or backyard, training, trying to figure out the drills that you have to do, and your lifts, it’s way better to be out here. It’s (only) individual workouts for now, but it’s day and night, obviously, it just feels good to be back here, put the shoes on, be on your field, and be able to touch the ball.”

With countless hours of being forced to train at home now seemingly behind them, it has given the players a small semblance of normality, something that they certainly aren’t taking for granted anymore, as it feels like the days where training at UBC was part of their normal routine loom so far back. 

It might not be the group sessions that they’re used to undertaking at their training ground, as social distancing rules were very much in effect during the session, but despite a change from the tight atmosphere that one would expect from a training ground, the camaraderie was still very high among the participants.

“Yeah, it was special,” ‘Caps head coach Marc Dos Santos said. “Like (Sporting Director) Axel (Schuster) said, especially on the mental side, just to have the players being together, and slowly seeing each other, even if it’s from the other side of the field, then putting their cleats on, going on the grass.”

“I wasn’t very involved, I had to stay more on the side, it’s something where now the first two weeks are going to be very much related to the kind of physical load, and what they’re going to do physically, to get their bodies back to get used to the demands of the game, but again, I think it’s a very important step 1, cleats on, going on the grass, touching a ball, seeing their teammates around, seeing coaching staff around, it’s a beginning.”

And you can tell what it means to the players. With Tuesday being the first official day that the Whitecaps opened their doors to their players, every player who was eligible to participate arrived, making for a good turnout. 

As a result, the team was forced to hold two separate sessions, with there being a maximum of 8 players that could go on the pitch at once, making for a successful start to this phase 1 of MLS’s return-to-play plan. 

That wasn’t to mean this went completely without a hitch, however, as two key members were missing amongst the participants. After their actions last week, Jhesser Khmiri and Yordy Reyna remained at home, where they must self-quarantine for another 10 or so days, in light of an incident where they participated in a pickup soccer game at a local park last week. 

While it appears that both have escaped from this incident relatively unscathed, aside from an undisclosed fine that was levied to the pair of them, it meant that they were unable to partake in this return to training, and they won’t be able to do so for the next little while. 

It was an unfortunate incident, but it appears to be one that both have learned from, so when asked about it for the first time since it happened, Dos Santos suggested that they should be able to put this behind them once their quarantine is over. 

“When you don’t have all the players together all the time in a place, we do the best that we can to educate them, and make them aware of what they can do, and what they cannot do,” Dos Santos said. “And you see that there’s always a situation in many clubs in the world where one or another player takes a bad decision. They’re (Khemiri and Reyna) aware of their decision, I think those five minutes that they decided to join a group and play was something that they learned from, and that they’re aware of it, and what to do next.” 

But while this is an important step for both the club and the league to take, it is not the end of the world for Khmiri and Reyna to miss out on this, at least not right away. At the end of the day, it’s still just voluntary training, meant to give players the space to train on a pitch with equipment that they might not have had access to at home, giving them a chance to feel the ball once again.

As Axel Schuster made sure to point out in his conference call on Tuesday, this will be more important in the grand scheme of things, at least in terms of where it may lead the league and its teams, instead of what is actually done during these sessions, which is why it’s important to keep perspective. 

Once these sessions are expanded, allowing the players to start training as a group, then we can start to really be optimistic about a potential return, but for now, it’s all about starting slow, and then seeing where to go from there. This is only offering players space to safely train, nothing more, so don’t take this as a sign that the league is returning to normal, but instead that it’s just one small step on a long road back.

“We’re very happy that we were able to make this first step today, into phase 1,” Schuster said. “And if you ask me what the most important is about phase 1, then I want to say that the most important thing is that it’s phase 1, and without phase 1, we will never be able to reach phase 2 and 3.”

“Nobody should get the feeling in our province, and all the kids should not think that (because) we are going out to play football again, they should be going out again into the parks to play soccer,” he added. “We are not playing soccer, we are only in phase 1, it’s a very little step from the technical side, so it’s only a step onto the pitch, doing individual workouts on the pitch, instead of doing them in local parks, or at home.”

When things do return, however, there is no shortage of options for the league to undergo. Be it a full return to normal, which as nice as it would be to imagine happening, seems less and less likely by the day, or some sort of modified proposal, MLS is working on something to get games back underway, as some other leagues around the world are slowly starting to do. 

So while the players undergo phase 1 of this multi-phase plan to safely get back to a level of play that they can compete at, expect MLS to continue heated discussions to find a good way to return. 

One solution floating around? Using a hub city, where teams would fly in and quarantine before returning to full training and game action, allowing them to play in what will be some sort bubble of the league’s teams and their various staff. 

Vancouver has been floated as a possible venue, but recently the rumours out of MLS suggest that Orlando has actually been considered to be the best option, likely due to their urban sprawl and various stadiums and training centres, of which Vancouver would be hard-pressed to match in terms of pure quantity. 

But either way, all of that seems far away, with June/July/August all being proposed as possible starting dates for this venture, so for the time being, the focus is just on returning to training, and then seeing from there. 

No matter what, Dos Santos is ready for what his team has to face, whether that is having to stay in a hub city or not, so he’ll cross that bridge when it’s time to come, and take the joy in knowing that if it happens, it’ll mean that he and his team can return to the sport that they love.

“Everything is still in the air, discussions are happening where the league is talking about a lot of different options,” Dos Santos said of the return-to-play rumours. “So to be honest with you, when I think about this situation, and I already spoke with my wife and family about the possibility and how we would manage it, I see it like going to a World Cup. When you go to a World Cup, there’s that month of preparation, that month or month and a half of competition, it’s just the way it is.”

“That’s the way we have to look at it, and if it happens, it’s a possibility for us to do our job in the most secure way possible, but for sure it has challenges.”

So when it comes, he’ll be prepared, both on and off the pitch, no matter what the solution ends up being.

But for now, he and his charges will enjoy this small victory, relish the opportunity to see each other again, and focus on the light that is starting to show up in front of them.

“It is very healthy for the players to go on the pitch, to see the facility, to see staff members and players, even if it’s from a distance,” Dos Santos added. “So there’s this positive side, that 60 minutes during the day brings a little bit of hope and light. The mood from what I saw today was very good, from a distance you can yell and say a joke to a player from far, and all of them looked encouraged with the day today. 

Cover Photo: Vancouver Whitecaps FC

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