Eight days after Major League Soccer entered the unusual, suspending its 2020 regular season amid the world’s reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, Portland Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese was engaging in part of his normal. He was addressing the media, only instead of standing in front of a backdrop at the Timbers Training Center in Beaverton, Oregon, or sitting on a stage for after a match at Providence Park, Savarese was at home, holding a video conference with those he would typically be seeing face-to-face. Microphones and cameras had given way to laptop screens and iPhones, for now.
“Good morning, guys, I miss you all ...,” he began, smiling in front of a backdrop of windows. “It’s the first time that we’ve tried something like this.”
It was last Wednesday, on March 11, that Savarese last spoke to the media. Back then, the audience was two, a writer from Rose City Review joining Timbers.com. Today’s video conference drew 16 people beyond its star, with print, digital and television asking different questions around the same theme: How does a team continue to function when, with players confined to their homes, the team can’t come together?
Within Savarese’s words it became clear his team now exists on two different levels: on the level they’re supporting each other through the current period; and the level they’ll want to be at when they return to the field.
“We are following the guidelines of the authorities, the health authorities and everything that they are advising us to do,” Savarese explained, with those guidelines making in-person interaction between coaches and players impossible. “We are, as well, with MLS [having] regular meetings, every single day to make sure that we are able to go through this situation in the smartest way, considering everyone in the community and making the right steps to come back.”
Savarese and his staff have to prepare for that return, but they also have to prepare for the now. And that now means providing support for Timbers’ players as well as those around them.
“It’s constantly our job everyday that we keep on listening,” he said, “that we keep on getting advice, that we keep on being proactive as well in the community with our players, with our staff to make sure that each of them is safe, is in a good situation.
“Each one has a different situation. Some of our players have newborn kids. Some others have a little bit older kids. Some other have older people in their home, parents that live with them or are visiting. Our thoughts are always how can we better help them.”
Part of that help is “daily” contact with players from coaches and medical staff, each of whom not only keep the players abreast of new developments but also monitor athletes’ symptoms. To date, in terms of COVID-19, the Timbers players have been asymptomatic, Savarese confirmed.
“We have made it a priority to make sure that we follow the guidance that has been given to us,” he said, “that we don’t stress [the system], that we don’t send players just to do a test. Because there are many other people that need to be tested.
“We are making sure that we are [tracking] symptoms, that the doctors are on top of every message that is received to make sure that if there’s ever one player – or a family member or a friend that is living with them – in a situation that [the team has] to take into consideration, we will then, at that point, send somebody to get tested. But at the moment, thank God, we haven’t had the need to do that.”
Part of the communication between staff and players drifts into that second level of Timbers’ life – a world which, while far less important, is still part of their jobs. There will come a day when training can resume. After that, there will be games. While nobody knows how soon those dates can come, once they arrive, players and staff need to be ready to go. How ready they’ll be then comes down to how they maintain fitness now.
“There are many different things that we are trying to do,” Savarese explained. “One … the strength and conditioning group put together a workout plan for everyone, to make sure they do this at home. [Players] give a report constantly, every day of the work that they are doing.
“Besides that, we felt that we had to go beyond only giving them instructions on how to workout. We are delivering stationary bikes for each player to make sure they have something in their home, for those that don’t have stationary bikes or treadmills, to be able to work, to make sure that they have that as well as the training.“
On the same day Savarese held his video conference, Major League Soccer announced a further delay to its season. What was originally a 30-day suspension was extended eight weeks into the future, a period that coincides with the Centers for Disease Control’s guidelines for postponing events involving more than 50 people.
The league also announced training facilities should only be used for physical therapy purposes until March 27, though for Savarese, any return of soccer takes a backseat to more pressing concerns.
“Every level of the organization is connected to MLS, with other teams, just to make sure we can get through this difficult moment, and how we can better do it for our players, for our team, our community, our fans …,” he said. “We’re getting a lot of conversations going with many people just to see how best we can confront this situation and be ready as well, knowing that in an hour something might change. This is the task that we’re living, right now.”