Team huddle, training, 7.16.20
Photo by Richard Farley

How the Timbers are helping players' families back home while team is away

ORLANDO, Fla. – It was the kind of angle editors latch on to, one that expands the world of sports beyond the statistics and strategies hardcore fans devour. Even beyond sports, human interest has always been a draw. The idea of a sports team, with players stationed 3,000 miles away from home, helping players’ families cope? Those motives transcend genres.

ESPN’s soccer coverage had a story the next day, less than 24 hours after Portland Timbers head coach Giovanni Savarese mentioned it in his first tournament press conference. His team had only been in Orlando for four days – four of a potential 40 spent at a continent’s distance. How players’ wives, children, and extended families would manage at home was still a pressing issue.

"Every family has different needs,” Savarese said, four days after the Timbers’ Portland departure. “Some are receiving food directly to their home so they don't have to go to the supermarket. Some are getting nannies. Some are getting people to clean their house, making sure if someone needs transportation. At all times, we have people back in Portland making sure that everything is taken care of.”

As portrayed nationally, the story made for a nice anecdote: a team acknowledging that the sacrifices of 40 days in a bubble extend beyond a player’s professional world. The Timbers were stepping in to help. In practice, the policy was born of a worldview that developed in March, in the initial weeks of the Portland area’s novel coronavirus isolation, when health concerns meant the Timbers Training Center in Beaverton had to be shut down.

That shutdown came with implications, the most important of which was the need to stay at home as much as possible. Players were not only risking themselves and their families if they exposed themselves to COVID-19. At some point, training would resume. The training center would start taking steps toward normal. In time, that would mean shared fields, locker rooms, gyms, treatment rooms, and eating spaces. In proximity and culture, the idea of team being family is more than a metaphor.

The Timbers had a vested interest in helping their players as much as possible, part of the reason why team chefs were repurposed to make delivery meals, and equipment from the team’s gyms was relocated to players’ homes. Players had everything they needed within their walls, allowing them to not only stay active but also help their partners. Like so many households around the world, the Timbers’ houses were becoming impromptu schools, or daycare centers, in addition to being a place the family reconvened when players came home from work. After over two months in isolation, a new lifestyle had started to take hold.

Portland couldn’t just expect players to drop everything and go to Orlando. They’d have nearly a month of training in Beaverton to resume their routines, but in some ways, that only highlighted the needs. Children weren’t going back to school. For the most part, they weren’t going to daycare, either. Amid COVID-19, having family coming into town to help the house was impractical for most, while adding caregivers or housekeepers to routines was complicated amid a pandemic’s world.

For the Timbers’, these things needed to be addressed. Not only was it unfair to ask players to abruptly change their families’ routines for a tournament in Orlando, it would be an undue burden on that family, one that would leave players’ minds in Oregon while they tried to perform in Florida. If Portland was intent on taking the MLS Is Back Tournament seriously, they had to put their players’ minds at ease before departure.

“The truth is, we’re not here for that long,” Timbers midfielder Sebastián Blanco explained, in Spanish, trying to maintain perspective. His wife and two infant daughters are back in Portland.

“Us being here, away from our families? That’s reality,” he says. “And I’m happy to have a club around us that responded to that.”

The team’s administrators started conversations, asking each player what they would need to put their minds at rest for Orlando. The meal services would continue, and with more importance. But what else could the team do? Between players and coaching staff, there are well over 20 children among the players’ families. Many needs revolved around them. Sometimes that meant in-home child care. Sometimes that meant housekeeping services. Sometimes, that meant somebody doing the grocery shopping, or providing other basic help.

“It shows [the Timbers] recognize what family means to us,” Blanco continued. “Even when COVID-19 [precautions] started to set in, everybody always remained in contact. The communication was good. They were always asking about what me, my wife, my two girls needed.”

The throughline on all of this was the mental strain on those back in Portland. Two months of coronavirus isolation meant Timbers players – parents who were normally gone in the middle of the day, and would take two-to-three day trips away from home multiple times a month – were now around 24 hours a day. They picked up tasks, shared responsibilities. They were part of their family’s new, coronavirus world. That became the new normal.

Pull one parent out of that and leave the rest on one person? For some houses, it might be too much.

“Giving my wife some free time, even if it’s two or three hours a day, helps a lot,” midfielder Diego Chara explained. He and his wife have four children and are being helped at home by Diego’s mother in law. The Charas’ twin sons are set to turn two in early fall.

“The meals have been especially important, too,” he says, “because throughout the day, you can lose a lot of time preparing food, cooking it, and doing everything that goes into the process, like cleaning. Instead of [my wife] spending so much on that, she can spend it with the children.”

Each family is different. For the Charas, the meal preparation was particularly valuable, but for the Blancos, it was help with housekeeping, according to Sebastián. Other players felt the club could help most with errands, like having one of the team chefs execute a grocery list. For others still, it was just about creating time to pause and regroup – to get out, take a drive or a walk, and feel slightly less overwhelmed.

Processes like these have an obvious human motive. Clubs have an interest in their players’ well-being, on multiple levels. One of those levels may be competitive, but the other, more important level is natural. People who are around each other often, share as much of their lives with each other as athletes and staff do, have a natural interest in each others’ happiness. Sometimes, you just want to help.

For the more cynical, there’s a competitive element to this view. In an ever-expanding league, where competition is increasing new, more powerful ownership groups and markets, Portland will always have to emphasize culture. The team has a fanbase that rivals most teams in MLS, but the city itself will never be New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles. In a business defined by competition between partners, Portland always needs to find better solutions.

On the field, that’s become leveraging the South American player market, as well building a squad that relies more on depth than other clubs. Off the field, that means leveraging Portland as a place to settle; a place that is friendly to a player’s family; a place that will be more than a one-or-two-season stopover.

Hence the family focus. In the face of the new demands of COVID-19, the Timbers had an approach in place. Helping players off the field would, as MLS returned, help athletes transition back to the field.

“It all made me much calmer about going away for the tournament,” Chara said. “The club knows what we need; what our families need. And we hear how things are being taken care of back home. It makes me feel at peace with the decision to come to Orlando.”