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Orlando City players adapt to MLS suspension of play, training

MLS veterans Brian Rowe and Tesho Akindele reflected on the current situation for the team, the league and the country.

Orlando goalkeeper Brian Rowe (middle) leaps to stop a kick during a match against the Philadelphia Union last season. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel)

ORLANDO, Fla. — Orlando City goalkeeper Brian Rowe can’t quite describe what he’s been feeling during the past two days.

Striker Tesho Akindele is in the same bind. The pair struggled to articulate the emotion — part frustration, part resignation, part uncertainty — that has rippled through most athletes as professional sports leagues across America suspended seasons and canceled games due to the sweeping spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I’ve never seen anything like this, in the league or in life, that has affected us as greatly as this,” said Rowe, who is playing in his eighth year in the league. “There isn’t really a manual or a rule book on how to deal with this.”

Players began to sense major changes loomed Wednesday night when the NBA suspended its season after a Utah Jazz tested positive for the new coronavirus. At training the next morning, Orlando City players chattered, guessing what might happen in the coming days.

The first official news, however, came from the MLS Players Association. As the team left training on Thursday morning, Akindele said his teammates all received the same text message — the players’ association had recommended a hiatus to the league, and both parties were in meetings to discuss their options.

Less than an hour, a follow-up text arrived, announcing the 30-day suspension.

“It’s a really crazy feeling, obviously, because nobody has ever experienced that before,” Akindele said. “It’s a really weird feeling. Obviously we all wish we could be out there, but we understand the decision from the league and the union because it’s a public safety issue. But it’s a tough time.”

The announcement left the team with more questions than answers — mainly, would training still be allowed during that 30-day period? The coaching staff told the team to head home for the day and expect another training day on Friday.

Players left the facility in Kissimmee like normal, prepared to return at 8 a.m. the next day for another morning workout. Later that night, however, players received an update — the league had now placed a moratorium on training until Monday to allow time to assess how to keep facilities clean and everyone safe.

The MLS policy did state players are allowed to use team facilities to train individually, but it stressed there could be no group workouts and only one player can actively use the gym or field at a time.

The only Orlando City players called in for training at the team facility were those recovering from injuries, a process that requires more one-on-one attention from staff, led by director of sports performance Skylar Richards. The rest of the team was told to wait out the weekend on their own time.

The team didn’t provide any guidelines for social contact or self quarantining, although the medical staff suggested players stay away from large crowds and highly trafficked public areas. With a free weekend ahead of them, each player spent their time differently.

Rowe stuck close to home with his wife, doing his best to stay active in the confines of their house. Akindele lives near a series of trails, so he took his bike out for an extended ride on Friday. Defender Ruan posted a video of himself running on a treadmill at his apartment alongside his wife.

Other players headed out to find alternative training spots or enjoy the day around Orlando. Rookie Joey DeZart and strikers Benji Michel and Santiago Patiño put in a full-speed session with a personal trainer at High Soccer Arena on Friday, working on agility training and individual skills at the indoor facility. Rookie midfielder Jordan Bender took jet skis out for a ride at New Smyrna Beach.

For now, the players are stuck in a period of uncertainty. Rowe said he’s keeping an eye on his phone at all times, as the team keeps up to date through a WhatsApp group chat. The team still isn’t certain if training will start up again on Monday or even when the next game will be played.

Rowe and Akindele both noted the frustration of the suspension’s timing. Orlando City went through a grueling preseason, and with a new coach and high expectations, players were eager to dig into the season and build momentum by earning wins.

But for players across the team, there’s an understanding that the next month will be focused on the bigger picture off the pitch.

“We would love to be out there,” Akindele said. “But we understand, and I’m sure all the fans understand, that this is bigger than the game of soccer at this point. Everybody’s health and safety is more important than the game but the second we can be back out there we will be.”

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