“We do love to play, and have to do The Bubble to play” | How the Timbers stay balanced in Orlando

ORLANDO, Fla. – When people in The Bubble mention Groundhog Day, they aren’t talking about a Pennsylvania rodent. Nobody is, anymore. So strong is the legacy of Harold Ramis’s 1993 movie that the term’s original significance has been usurped. Now when somebody talks about Groundhog Day, they’re probably not talking about a frivolous holiday in February. More likely than not, talking about the Bill Murray movie. They’re probably talking about the feeling of living the same day over, and over, and over.

The laughs around that term have evolved over life in The Bubble – a combination of euphemism and metaphor that’s been used to describe the eight-week existence some have lived around the 2020 MLS Is Back Tournament in Orlando, Florida. The first to arrive and the last to leave will be select Major League Soccer employees, those whose part in the tournament will involve setup and tear down, all within the confinement of one of Walt Disney World’s resorts. Somewhere on the edge of the Swan and Dolphin Hotels on one end and the fields at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at the other, an imaginary force field exists. Nothing, especially COVID-19, is allowed in, and aside from a few league employees that have tagged out and went home, only teams eliminated from MLS Is Back have been allowed out.

“It's different,” Bill Tuiloma says about life in The Bubble. Tuiloma is a defender and midfielder for the Portland Timbers, one of 26 MLS teams that entered The Bubble starting in late June. Twenty-four ended playing in the competition. Two teams won’t fly home until August 12, the day after the tournament’s final. If the Timbers players play in that game, Tuiloma will have spent 41 days inside a metaphor.

The Bubble itself isn’t that bad. Everyone gets a hotel room. They don’t have to worry about meals, laundry or cleaning their rooms, let alone the novel coronavirus. Players get tested at least three times a week, usually four. Life inside The Bubble is one of privilege. Everybody knows.

Photo: Richard Farley / Portland Timbers

“Yeah, it's very different,” one of Portland’s starting center backs, Larrys Mabiala, said on the brink of the team’s tournament semifinal. “I've gotten used to it, now, so I hope for 10 more days, I get to do the same thing. Then, I'll go back to normal.”

There is a monotony to The Bubble’s privilege, one born partially of the constraints, partially of the lifestyle. Not being able to go beyond a two minutes’ walk from the hotel entrance means diversions involve the same hotel hallway, the same elevators and lobbies, the same conference rooms that have been converted to cafeterias. Or treatment rooms. Or gymnasiums. Add in the routines that define an athlete’s lifestyle, and every cheerful clerk becomes the day’s Ned Ryerson, while your closest teammates become a combination of Chris Elliott and Andy McDowell.

“It’s something that I’ve never had to experience before,” first-year Timbers player Blake Bodily explained. One year ago, he was two months into a summer vacation, looking forward to what would be his final year at the University of Washington. Now, the next stop on his road is the one he passed the day before. Game days are different, but for the most part, there’s a predictable rhythm to his time in Orlando.

“The schedule is usually: wake up around 11 o’ clock,” he says, reflecting the team’s want to stay on west coast hours, “eat breakfast, and then depending on the day, we’ll either have a gym session after that or just chill and hang out in the rooms.” The way schedules are broken up, players have something to do, then go their rooms. Then the next thing to do. Then, go their rooms.

“Typically I’ll go to lunch, go to practice, have dinner, then come back,” he says. “Then you have a little free time after dinner to do what you like.”

Photo: adidas Creators Network

The Timbers’ culture is different than most in professional sports, where young men trying to establish their careers tends to be the dominant mode. That’s present with Portland, too, but more than most teams, fatherhood is a driving force. Arguably the team’s four most-prominent players – Diego Chara, Diego Valeri, Sebastián Blanco and Mabiala – have a combined 10 children among them. When staff families are included, the Timbers’ traveling party counts well over 20 kids among their group. Free time becomes defined by that shared motive.

“It's definitely my kids,” Mabiala said, when asked what he missed most about Portland. “My kids, they are the ones who wake me up in the morning. I don't even have to set an alarm, because I know they are going to wake me up.

“My kids, my wife, we [have become] trained to keep in contact by FaceTime every day, but it doesn't replace the fact that she is not here right next to me, or my kids as well aren't right next to me. That’s the thing I miss the most.”

The thing Mabiala and his teammates may do the most in Orlando is take elevators. The Timbers live nine floors above the spaces they eat in and work, and with social distancing a mandate in The Bubble, there’s little reason to lurk on the Dolphin’s lower levels. Between meetings and practice, gym and treatment, meals and sessions, players take at least 14 trips between rooms and lobby each day. Normal life at the team’s Beaverton training center would see players arrive in the morning, leave early afternoon, and be done within six hours. Orlando’s tasks get sprinkled across a 10- or 11-hour window.

“It’s definitely different, but I’ve started to get used to it,” Bodily says, describing the fractured routine. “We’ve been here for a little while.”

Long enough to start relying on coping mechanisms. For Tuiloma, it’s Call of Duty sessions via a PS4, when he’s not catching up with his girlfriend in Portland. It’s also sessions at the ping-pong table outside his room, when he, Jeremy Ebobisse and Jaroslaw Niezgoda vie for the top ranking among the seven-or-so who jump in and out. Bodily is among that seven but also changes up his routine with games of Settlers of Catan, or excursions outside for tecball – ping-pong, but with soccer’s ball and rules.

Here, again, Mabiala’s life is the reminder. From the outside, there is a want to see The Bubble as a bonding opportunity, and in that opportunity, many might imagine an atmosphere that reflects a locker room. The Dolphin Hotel’s ninth floor reflects some of that, but only some. Even beyond the fathers, many Timbers’ players have significant others back home, in Europe, or in Central America. Lives always bend to maintain those bonds. That means not only prioritizing FaceTime for hours in other timezones but embracing a certain rhythm. Lives defined by others look different than lives defined by the locker room.

“Me, at the beginning, I was reading a lot,” Mabiala explains. “Now, it feels like everyday is the exact same. So, I stopped reading. My brain felt full. I couldn’t take any more information.

“Now I'm just watching different shows. I started to dive back into the Marvel Universe, from the first Avengers to the last Endgame movie, and all the shows in between. I'm trying to go all the way through.”

That’s how much time the Timbers have to themselves – enough to look at a list of 23 movies and eight television series and say, “this seems manageable.”

In time, that may be how Mabiala relates The Bubble to people. “I got to watch Marvel. All the Marvel.” For now, though, Timbers think their Bubble will be defined by something more immediate; something more obvious but still mundane, and ultimately visceral.

“I'm going to be talking about this for years,” Tuiloma thinks. “People are going to be asking, 'oh, how was the bubble,' and you're going to tell them everything. The testing every second day. Walking up and down, past the same lobby and the same elevators. Having the mask on all the time, as well.”

Photos: adidas Creators Network

“I’ll probably remember getting to know the team more ...,” Bodily says. “For me, it’s kind of been a blessing to get to know the guys a little better, being able to bond with them, and get closer with them. That’s probably the biggest thing for me.”

In that way – in the opportunity to, in a world of social distancing, be part of something beyond yourself – The Bubble has been a positive. A positive, but still a restriction, one that’s required sacrifice for those with families at home. Entering a second month of The Bubble, most have found solace in their tournament’s purpose.

“We do love to play, and have to do [The Bubble] to play,” Tuiloma offers. “We made it to the semifinals. Might as well go all the way and win it.”

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The Portland Timbers will face the Philadelphia Union in the semifinals of the MLS is Back Tournament Knockout Stage presented by Audi on Aug. 5 at 5pm PT on FS1.

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