Major League Soccer’s return to its practice fields for players’ individualized trainings has come with a series of precautions – measures intended to keep facilities safe in a time of COVID-19. As announcements describing social-distance sessions emerged, it was easy to wonder how much real training could possibly happen, or how the players would feel about the new approach.
On Thursday, the same day that he returned to the Portland Timbers Training Center in Beaverton, Oregon, forward Jeremy Ebobisse left no doubt as to how he felt.
“It felt almost therapeutic to be back out there on the field ...,” Ebobisse described, speaking to the media from his home via a Zoom video conference.
“[T]o be out there in such safe conditions was really, really important to my mental health,” he said. “To get out there and see some of the other faces, as well, even if it’s from a distance. The bond felt closer today.”
Players took rotating shifts on the Timbers’ field, with the pitch divided into personalized quadrants to endure social distancing. For sanitation purposes, players were responsible for maintaining their own equipment and gear, with daily wellness quizzes as well as temperature checks ensuring anyone exhibiting symptoms of the novel coronavirus did not have access to the grounds.
“A little step feels like a massive one, right now,” Ebobisse said about the return, with a gratitude echoed by his team’s captain and head coach.
“We have been waiting for a long time to be able to come back to the facility, to be able to train,” Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese said. “One thing that we definitely miss is having the players here, training in our field – being here, around, doing our job.”
“It’s amazing to be here …,” captain Diego Valeri explained. “Obviously, it’s nice to start working out again on a field, with different kinds of spaces, even with social distances, watching our teammates training, too.”
Per Ebobisse’s description, the training sessions were streamlined, explaining that dribbling and shooting into mini-goals were prominent parts of the day’s exercises. “Different patterns through the cones,” he began, listing the elements. “Different skill moves. A little bit of juggling. Change of pace with the ball. All of these little things that players take for granted, probably only work on in the offseason. But after just a long break, it feels so good just to do those little things.”
Doing them on a real field was also one of Ebobisse’s themes. When asked how he’d been staying in shape, Ebobisse said that he had “been doing a lot of my running on concrete” throughout the streets in Portland, with only recent weeks seeing him return to work with a ball. Even that work was initially done one sidewalks with passes against walls, though he has eventually progressed to “dribbling through trees and whatever obstacles I can find.”
“I know you mentioned ‘were you just dribbling,’” he said, reiterating a question from the Portland Tribune. “Dribbling feels like a lot, right now.”
“I think we’re all just appreciative of finally being back on a soft field, touching a ball, and getting more progressive with the exercises we can do,” he said later in his media session.
It was sentiment that tied back to the mental elements of this phase, something that was foremost in Ebobisse’s thoughts. As his 20-minute Q-and-A progressed, he was asked about the physical challenge of the new preseason explaining he was able to do all the day’s aerobic activity, though each player was going to be different. About the mental challenges, though, he spoke more universally, putting his team’s developments in the context of a world looking for ways to move forward.
“[Returning to training is] a step in the right direction,” he said. “We always talk about ‘We will get through this,’ and ultimately as each day goes on and you just hear more and more bad news, you feel like maybe we won’t get through this, and the break is just endless. Some people go through much harder scenarios than others, but I think we can all share in the fact that no one knows when it’s going to end and how it’s going to end.
“Just to be able to get back out on the field in such a controlled manner, for us, the players who are able to share little snippets of our entrances and us being on the field [to share that] with the fans, we want to convey the belief and uplifting spirit with us being back out on the field, and hopefully taking a big step into playing a regular-season game, however that looks … you also have to take the little wins when you get them.”
As the Portland’s President of Soccer Gavin Wilkinson hinted two weeks ago, a return to the training center for individualized sessions could be a “first step, as far as optimism.” In his words, Ebobisse reflected that step. Like most of us, his life was one of uncertainty over the last seven weeks, and while there may have been reason to wonder how much could be accomplished in one quadrant of a field, from an emotional standpoint, Thursday appears to have been a significant step forward.