Major League Soccer’s bid to resume play during the global pandemic wobbled Monday as FC Dallas was forced to withdraw from the MLS is Back Tournament after 10 players and one coach tested positive for COVID-19.
"Until we have a vaccine, I think there are going to be challenges with this. This is kind of the reality of what has happened to us in 2020," FC Dallas president Dan Hunt told a video news conference, while paying tribute to those who have lost their lives around the world in the pandemic.
"I think you will see stopping and starting in some sports," he added.
The league said the positive tests occurred upon the club’s arrival June 27 in Florida or within a few days after.
"Given the impact of the number of positive tests on the club’s ability to train and play competitive matches, we made the decision to withdraw FC Dallas from the MLS is Back Tournament," MLS commissioner Don Garber said in a statement.
"The health of everyone involved in our return to play has always been our top priority, and we will continue to make decisions consistent with that priority."
FC Dallas is currently in quarantine in Orlando and has been unable to train.
Hunt said he was told at noon Monday that the league was going to pull his team out of the tournament.
The news came as Toronto FC and the Vancouver Whitecaps, both of whose departures had been delayed by COVID-19 testing concerns, were in the air headed to Orlando for the World Cup-style tournament.
The tournament, now down to 25 teams, is scheduled to start Wednesday at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex in the Orlando area.
"As we continue to focus on the well-being of our players, coaches and staff who are in isolation in Orlando, we understand it is not in their best interests to compete at this time," Dallas coach Luchi Gonzalez said in a statement. "While we’re disappointed, the health and safety of our travelling delegation as well as our league partners is our highest priority."
The team said it would co-operate with MLS and local health officials in Florida and Texas on a plan "that can safely bring the team back to Frisco in a way that minimizes risk of exposure to all parties involved and ensures their safety."
Hunt said the entire team had adhered to all the league protocols and had undergone three tests, including one administered by the league-appointed lab in New Jersey, in the week before arriving in Florida with all tests negative.
The league said of the 557 players currently in Orlando, 13 have been confirmed positive for COVID-19. Aside from the 10 from Dallas, two from Nashville and one from Columbus also tested positive.
Hunt said MLS had done the best job possible in setting up the Disney facility.
"But this is uncharted territory for professional sports in this country," he added. "And unfortunately we don’t know a lot about COVID. We’re still learning daily. And I think we probably had some cases that were dormant that didn’t show up in the testing."
Hunt said some of those testing positive were asymptomatic, with others ranging from a dull headache to a minor cough and a little bit of fever.
The league now has to revamp the tournament schedule — and figure out what happens to Dallas in the standings, given the three group games each team will play at the tournament will count in the regular-season standings.
The MLS Players Association called the Dallas withdrawal "a reminder of how difficult the circumstances involving returning to work remain across all sports during this pandemic.
"The players and staff from FC Dallas worked incredibly hard over the last few months to be ready to take the field, but removing the team from the competition is both responsible and necessary. This past week has been an extraordinarily stressful time for the FC Dallas players, staff and their families."
Hunt, while praising Texas Gov. Mark Abbott for instituting a rule requiring face masks recently, said: "I think we should have had that earlier."
"Unfortunately our laws were way too wide-open on this issue," he said, also citing Arizona and California.
Dallas had suspended voluntary individual workouts after announcing a positive test for a player on June 3. The unidentified player was the second known positive COVID-19 case among MLS players, following Philadelphia Union forward Kacper Przybylko’s positive test in March.
MLS has been on hiatus since March 12 when the global pandemic halted play two weeks into the season.
The MLS is Back Tournament marks the league’s return to action, with teams arriving in Florida in stop-start fashion due to COVID testing.
Teams are staying in the same hotel but are supposed to be isolated from each other in a bid to maintain a protective bubble. But COVID-19 has managed to infiltrate.
The Whitecaps were originally slated to open against Dallas on Thursday. But the game was pushed back after six members of the Dallas contingent initially tested positive in Florida and Vancouver had to delay its scheduled departure last Wednesday due to a pair of inconclusive test results. That prompted more testing in Vancouver, which subsequently came back negative.
The Whitecaps will now open July 15 against San Jose.
Toronto was scheduled to take off last Friday but pushed its departure to Saturday, citing the need for more time to complete pre-travel coronavirus testing. The club had to postpone again after a member of its travelling party reported "experiencing symptoms," requiring another round of testing.
The Colorado Rapids, originally due to leave Sunday, delayed their departure to Tuesday after a pair of "presumptive positive" COVID-19 results in its travelling party.
The tournament wraps up Aug. 11.
The Montreal Impact, who arrived last Thursday, play the New England Revolution on Thursday. Toronto is slated to open Friday against D.C. United.
MLS is not the first soccer league to lose a team on the eve of a pandemic return-to-play event. The Orlando Pride pulled out of the NWSL Challenge Cup in Utah on June 22 after six players and four staff members tested positive for COVID-19.