If the prospect of a 14- or 15-hour business trip sounds like a haul, welcome to Major League Soccer in the COVID-19 era.
Since announcing its return to home markets in August, MLS has required its teams to complete same-day travel for road games, something the Chicago Fire (5-8-4, 19 points) will do again Wednesday night when they travel to St. Paul to play Minnesota United (6-5-5, 23 points).
That means the Fire will leave Wednesday morning, fly to Minnesota, play and then return to Chicago that night to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19.
It probably goes without saying that health and safety protocols have added a wrinkle that Alex Boler, the Fire’s senior manager of team and soccer operations, has to navigate.
“I can’t even compare anything to this year,” he said last week before the Fire played at Sporting Kansas City. “Just like everyone has dealt with this year, it’s been a crazy weird year just down to how the world turned on its head. Everyone, and I’m not talking about sports, but everyone in life has dealt with it.
“We had to be flexible and that was a whole task that me and my department, the coaches and the players had to get used to. Everybody had to build from scratch.”
Even before the pandemic, the logistics of moving a professional soccer team around the country could be a handful. The travel party consists of 35 people, 20 of whom are players, but coronavirus protocols have compressed the amount of time needed to get teams in and out of cities.
One change MLS made is the use of chartered flights. In previous seasons, most teams flew commercial and went through much of the same procedure as any other traveler.
“It’s a game changer,” Boler said of charter flights. “You don’t have to go deal with baggage claim, you don’t have to check players in one by one with boarding passes and all that stuff. That helps out logistically from my end but it definitely helps the players, too. It’s not cost-friendly, but it’s definitely a positive.”
The simplified version of a typical road trip for the Fire goes something like this: Departure between 8:45 and 10 a.m., lunch around 12:30 p.m. and then a few hours of rest in hotel rooms before a second meal 3 1/4 u00bd hours before kickoff. After a team meeting in the hotel about two hours before the start of the game, the Fire arrive at the opponent’s stadium with 1 hour, 30 minutes to spare. The Fire head to the airport after the match, typically landing in Chicago after midnight with players arriving at their homes around 1 a.m.
But because of COVID-19 protocols, things are a little more complicated than that.
Take accommodations, for instance. MLS teams stay in designated hotels that meet various standards, including spaces for meals, meetings and pregame treatment. Health protocols mean the Fire typically eat in a ballroom with only four players per