Life inside the bubble is no picnic, but at least it’s safe.
Nearly four months into the shutdown caused by the novel coronavirus, there hasn’t been a single person associated with the New Mexico United soccer club to test positive for COVID-19. That includes 23 players, three coaches, the technical support staff and the entire front office, a group of nearly 60 men and women who make up the organization.
Most of the players live in the same apartment building in downtown Albuquerque, and everyone associated with the team follows strict protocols that went into place in mid-March when the parent United Soccer League suspended its season due to the pandemic.
Team president and majority owner Peter Trevisani lauded the team’s exhaustive safety precautions for dodging the proverbial bullet this long.
“Ultimately this is the safest environment they can possibly be in right now,” he said. “If the players weren’t under those protocols and they weren’t playing this year, there’s a good chance we’d have more positive tests.”
The USL officially relaunches its season Saturday. The United will visit Colorado Springs, Colo. Four days later, the team will play a match in El Paso. The home opener is scheduled for July 29 at the team’s temporary new digs, the University of New Mexico’s Track and Soccer Complex.
The move across Avenida Cesar Chavez from Rio Grande Credit Union Field at Isotopes Park makes it easier for the city to accommodate the Colorado Rockies’ taxi squad later this month.
The Triple-A Albuquerque Isotopes and the United shared the baseball stadium in 2019, making it a challenge for the stadium’s grounds crew to continuously make the conversion from baseball to soccer.
Last week, the Rockies announced they will use Isotopes Park as a training site for the 30 players not on the team’s big league roster once Major League Baseball starts its 60-game season July 23.
“It just seemed a little hectic, and this seemed like a really good opportunity for us to work with UNM,” Trevisani said. “When we’re allowed to play games without fans, we’ll play there [at UNM]. If we are able to have fans — depending on how many, if we were to get to that situation and it was safe — we could play at UNM Soccer, at Isotopes [Park] or we could move to the football stadium and really spread people out and make it feel safe, get a few thousand people in a 40,000-seat stadium.”
The United’s players have been in Albuquerque since January. Trevisani said they get some supplies from the team, but they are able to get out and buy their own groceries.
“The players have made a huge sacrifice,” he said. “They’re far from their hometown, they’re making New Mexico home and they’re not able to socialize the way a normal 25-year-old would like to. They’re making that sacrifice because they see the importance of this team and what it can do this year more than ever for the state.”
Anyone inside the team’s bubble is prohibited from going out to restaurants or participating in large social gatherings. A few players were recently invited to speak at a Black Lives Matter rally but had to cancel at the last moment after strict protocols by the USL’s players union had been activated.
“Ever since we’ve announced the schedule to come back, you could just feel the heightened sense of awareness,” Trevisani said. “So far it’s working.”
The USL’s return to play has been designed to make driving to and from games an option for most teams. The United will do just that for Saturday’s match and again for the July 15 game at El Paso. Colorado Springs is allowing a maximum of 750 fans into its stadium while El Paso, like New Mexico, will not allow fans.
The El Paso trip will be treated much like a high school game in that the United players will dress on the bus and go directly to the field for warmups. Once it’s over they’ll head straight home.
Everyone making road trips will be tested at least 72 hours before each match and again immediately afterward. Should a player test positive, it would be that much easier for the USL to conduct contact tracing and limit the exposure to the rest of the team.
Trevisani wants the fans to be a part of everything — even if they’re not allowed to be there in person.
His staff has put together a “return to safe supporting” protocol to show people how to enjoy the matches safely until they’re allowed to return.
In that respect, the team is working on deals that would expand its current multimedia footprint to include at least some games televised on KOAT Channel 7 and others broadcast in Spanish on radio.
Other plans in the works are drive-in viewing parties where fans can watch games from their cars.
Every match is already streamed live on the ESPN virtual platform, as well as carried live on radio in Albuquerque and Rio Rancho.
“Those moments, as you know, are priceless right now for people to kind of break the chain and get some mental health relief,” Trevisani said.
As frustrating as the entire coronavirus experience has been, Trevisani admits it could have been considerably worse without taking precautions. If and when it finally ends, he said, he hopes fans will have something positive to remember.
“In 2020 I want New Mexicans to look back and when someone says, ‘Hey, what’s the one word that reminds you of 2020?’ I want it to be ‘championship’ and not ‘pandemic,’ ” he said. “We have a chance to change the narrative.”