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Simon Asher-for the Portland Timbers

Timbers' Tucson trip shows life's progress since time in Orlando

You don't hear about many parallels between Orlando, Florida, and Tucson, Arizona, but there are a few. There's the sunshine that fuels each city's summer heat, as well as the climate anomalies that don't fit the cities' reputations. Central Florida has its thunderstorms. Tucson gets the rare snow.. Both cities are retirement destinations and places to venture south for some winter sun, and between Miami and Phoenix, both Orlando and Tucson can be overshadowed by glossier in-state locales.

For the Portland Timbers, there is another parallel. Nine months ago, the team left Portland on their first trip of the Covid-19 era, one that would span seven weeks while the team competed at the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando. After winning that competition, the Timbers had various road trips throughout the rest of Major League Soccer's 2020 regular season, but very few lasted more than one day. Road trips meant travel that would normally last two or three days were reduced to early morning flights, preparations in a destination market hotel, and a late flight back to Portland.

Today, the Timbers complete their first long road trip since Orlando - a 10-day, nine-night stay in Tucson that concludes with their midday match with Sporting Kansas City. While that provides another connection between Orlando and Tucson, eight months of Covid life since the team's return from Disney World has left a new perspective. Life amid Covid has, as the Timbers' Bill Tuiloma put it, become "kind of normal."

"It's also part of our job," the defender, entering his fourth full season with the team, explained. "Our job is to go and train, work hard, have a good session, then come back, rest up, then go again the next day. It might be different for other players, but I think it's kind of normal routine, now, since Covid popped in and kind of shook everything [up]."

That is to say life in Tucson, for the Timbers, has a lot of similarities to Portland.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Timbers have been cautious, going as far as to, at times, deliver meals and exercise equipment to players' homes. Part of this was staff doing their jobs, part of it was to keep players in shape, but another part was a safety concern. The less players had to venture away from home and into the world, the less exposure they would have to unknowns; the less exposure they would potentially have to Covid.

These precautions established a routine: home to field; field to home. All of our lives have fallen into patterns over the last year. That was theirs. Once that pattern was mandated as a safety precaution in Orlando, the Timbers were prepared for that life, a life that continued throughout the remainder of the 2020 season. When 2021's preseason arrived, players fell back into that routine, maintaining that rhythm as they trained in Tucson.

"We all go back to our rooms," Tuiloma said, when asked about life away from the field. There wasn't much else to report. "I brought my Playstation, and a few of the other lads have brought theirs. We're just hanging out."

larrys mabiala training in tucson arizona with the portland timbers

There are team meals at the resort the Timbers are staying at in the Tucson hills. There are also gym sessions, and treatment. The resort's isolation allows for more outdoor options than players had in Orlando. On a day off, a few got in a round of golf. But for the most part life in Arizona has paralleled life in Oregon. Children and family are missed, but in terms of the routine, it's work, rest, and be as safe as possible.

"The vibe here has been absolutely on top," Tuiloma said. "Everyone is excited. Everyone is training. Everyone is having a good laugh." Everyone has moments that feel normal.

"We're still doing [Settlers of] Catan," midfielder Eryk Williamson said last week, when asked how the team's off-field activities have evolved. Since coming to Portland before the 2018 season, Williamson's been part of a group of players that's played the board game. Over the last year, how they've played has evolved.

"The main thing now is online," he said. "We all downloaded the app, and it's been a lot of playing Catan virtually. With Covid, we don't want to be in the same room touching pieces. It helps that they have the game online … It's not as realistic as rolling the die. I think the guys are starting to get sick of the app always rolling sixes."

Beyond geography and time, the biggest difference between Portland's lives in Orlando and Tucson is knowledge of Covid; and, through that knowledge, the comfort they have with how they can navigate the world. By the time the team took off for Florida, almost no professional team sports had restarted. The National Women's Soccer League's own summer tournament, Challenge Cup, was only about to kickoff in Utah, while the National Basketball Association had yet to descend on Orlando for its own "bubble." Just over three months after the world shutdown, people still unsure about how to move forward.

"No one knew what was going to happen, to be honest …," Tuiloma remembers. "It felt like we were all on our toes, being aware of who's around us. Now, it feels a little bit laid back. But we're still being aware, being cautious of where we're going … We are staying positive and keeping safe, and being aware of the things outside of us."

"It's pretty similar," team captain Diego Valeri said, when asked to compare this Tucson trip to the ones he's been on during prior preseasons. This one felt "like the bubble" in Orlando, he said, but it also felt closer to normal: less of an experiment - of wading into new water; more of a place where the team could control its outcomes.

Orlando eventually felt like that, too, but it took a while. It took days, if not weeks on the ground to get used to that world. Now, after almost a year of embracing home-to-field, of the safety of your space, Tucson is more than a bubble. It feels like a preseason. To Tuiloma, "it felt like we were back to normal."

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