Phoenix Rising FC delayed its first full-squad training session by 24 hours after players tested positive for COVID-19. In the club’s first press conference since March, general manager Bobby Dulle and head coach Rick Schantz explained the path forward yesterday. “The good news is that those individuals are asymptomatic, feeling well and under the care of our team physicians,” Dulle said. “I’m encouraged that our protocols seem to be working as we have quarantined those that tested positive and implemented our procedures for those that were in close contact.”
While Dulle wouldn’t confirm how many players had tested positive, Arizona Sports’ Jake Anderson later reported that it was four.
Following additional testing, healthy members of the team will instead begin full squad training today. “I can’t wait,” Rising coach Rick Schantz chuckled. “I’ve been planning this for seven months.” To Schantz, this step marks a big improvement from the previous small groups.
“You couldn’t do what we call game-like actions,” he said. “You couldn’t create unpredictability, so that makes it very difficult.”
With added measures in place – from increased sanitization to chlorinating the ice baths – Rising’s coach is convinced that the team and league have taken the right steps to ensure safety. “I think it’s extremely safe,” Schantz said. “It’s no more difficult than going to the grocery store.
“What we’re learning is that it’s not really happening in sport. It’s not happening in training. It’s happening with individuals who are out in large groups and unsafe settings, so wearing a mask and washing your hands is extremely important.”
With Rising moving to the next stage of training, all eyes are looking to the season resumption in July. “I would anticipate, sometime towards the end of next week, that we should be in a position to go out to the public with [the revised schedule],” Dulle said, “but I can assure you that we’re trying to get that out as soon as we possibly can.”
The 16-game format, likened by Schantz to a college schedule, presents new challenges. “That was a winning streak last year, so we’ve really got to push the team and be the best that we can be all season,” he said. “There’s no time to lose points.”
The Rising head coach still believes it is the right approach for the league, and more realistic than hosting an MLS-style tournament. “We knew it was really unrealistic for the USL, just from our financial standpoint,” Schantz said. “Not all the teams in the league could fly and put their players in a hotel for 30 days straight.” Schantz identified also depth as an issue for USL sides playing in a tournament setting. That isn’t a concern for his own squad going into the shortened season, though. “I feel very good at every position that we have two high quality players, so for us, it’s just going to be managing how close we keep our bubble, how safe we keep our players,” he said. “Then, each week, whatever guys are available, the best players are going to play.”
That depth could provide especially helpful as play resumes. From then, he will be able to draw on up to five substitutes each game. “It was just a smart decision by the league, and the rest of the world,” Schantz said. “These guys have had so much time off that it’s probably not the safest to just throw them out there and say ‘you’ve got to play 90 minutes without a sub’, and it’ll put them at injury risk. I think there’s enough risk right now.”
Just because he has the substitutions available, of course, doesn’t mean he intends on using them. “What I’ve learned is that right now in our world, you’d better take everything one game at a time and it’s literally going to be in the moment how we feel,” Schantz said.
“If we’re winning 3-0 and we haven’t used four subs, it seems like it’d make sense to make a lot of changes. If you’re down 1-0, and you’ve really got to push for a goal, it’s going to be nice to have a few extra changes.”
That isn’t the only change in the sport since COVID-19 caused a pause in play. Players across the world have been bringing Black Lives Matter protests onto the field, with acts including kneeling before games. Once USL restarts, Schantz says that it’s up to the players to determine how they support their cause. “They’ve had some great discussions as a group, and they’re obviously coming up with some ideas,” he said. “It was their idea to film the little video of Rising as One.”
That video showed players kneeling on the pitch at Casino Arizona Field, before lining up as the number one. It was shared across the club’s social media accounts.
— Peter Ramage (@peterramage83) June 3, 2020
“The team belongs to the players,” Schantz added. “It’s not my team. I just kind of steer the ship a little bit, but it’s theirs, and they have to take ownership. So what you see from our club and from our organization, it’s generally representative of being straight from the players.”
When the players eventually do retake the field, they may not be alone in the stadium. “We’re preparing for both scenarios, with fans in a limited capacity, and we’re preparing for a scenario with no fans,” Dulle said. “We’re prepared to move forward in either direction. Of course, hopefully we can have some fans, but we will only do that in a safe manner”
According to Dulle, the team is sharing its proposals for a fan return to be reviewed by scientists and attorneys. Yet even if fans do return to the stands, it’s inevitable that there won’t be enough room for all. “Whether we are at 25% or 50%, no matter what, based on our capacity we have season ticket members that exceed that number,” he said. “So, what we feel has been the reasonable route to take is based on the priority numbers.”
For now, the focus is on preparation, with Rising discussing topics including arrival gates, concession stands and parking spacing. “If we’re able to have fans, we’re going to do everything we can to mitigate risk,” the GM explained. “We can’t eliminate it. We know that, but we’re going to do everything we can, and we’re going to give people options, and we’re going to let them know what the environment looks like.
Rising’s season is set to resume on the weekend of July 11.