Roberto Aldana of the Motagua FC (front) and Fernando Meza battle for a header during the first half of soccer in the Scotiabank Concacaf Champions League, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020, in Kennesaw, Ga. (John Amis, Atlanta Journal Constitution)
Photo: John Amis/AJC
Photo: John Amis/AJC

Two Atlanta United players react to possibly relocating to Orlando

Safety and flexibility may be the keys for resuming the MLS season amid COVID-19, based upon the reactions of Atlanta United players Anton Walkes and Fernando Meza to two reported proposals made by the league this week. 

Regarding the possibility of the league relocating teams to Orlando, housing them in resorts around Walt Disney World and holding training and games at an ESPN complex, Walkes said the “main responsibility is safety of everyone, first and foremost. ...

“The idea of playing games seems very exciting. There’s nothing more I’d like than to resume my schedule. But safety for everyone is the most important thing. We are all keen and eager to start back on track. Some of the concerns are just making sure everybody can be safe. We can move forward from there.” 

The MLS season, which includes games and training as teams, was suspended March 12 to try to limit the spread of COVID-19. Teams had played only two of 34 games. 

Though he said the logistics of the plan seem challenging, Meza said the players should try to work with the league to restart the season. 

“As players we are willing to be flexible to try to work with MLS to try to find the best solution,” he said through an interpreter. 

March 8, 2020 Atlanta: Atlanta United defender Anton Walkes (left) just beats FC Cincinnati midfielder Adrien Regattin to the ball during a 2-1 Atlanta United victory in a MLS soccer match on Saturday, March 8, 2020, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton ccompton@ajc.com
Photo: Curtis Compton/Curtis Compton

Neither player seemed to relish the idea of staying sequestered in a resort in central Florida for anywhere from weeks to months. Walkes said he hopes there are plans to assist the players mentally as well as physically if the plan is put into motion. 

“Things that come with it, like leaving their families,” he said. “Some guys might be able to sit in their rooms, get up and turn the switch on and be at their best. We just need to consider what works best and what develops so that we can get the most out of ourselves. If we can do that, it’ll benefit the league.

“To get everyone’s mind right, body right that plays a big part as well. ... It’s more than just a physical sport. It demands a lot mentally. It’s going to be hard to be away for a few months to get these games out of the way. If that does some up we have to come up with solutions to look after ourselves mentally and psychologically.”

Meza agreed that it would be difficult, but the players should try to work with the league.

“If that means we have to be in quarantined for 2-3 weeks to do it, we will do it to follow protocols,” he said.

Walkes said he thinks it would take more than 2-3 weeks of full team training for players to be ready to compete in games. 

“If I go onto the field, I want to give all I can,” he said. “Two-three weeks wouldn’t be enough for me. The risk of injury would be very high.” 

MLS started last week allowing players to participate in voluntary individual workouts at their team’s training grounds. 

Walkes said he feels safe while training because of the protocols put into place. 

When working out, players must wait in their cars before being allowed to park after after a radio signal is given that they have arrived. The players will then receive word by phone that they can walk to the training pitches. Players aren’t allowed in locker rooms, for example. The players must wear masks as they walk from their cars on a path around the main building toward the pitches. Once near the fields, their temperatures are taken and they are asked several questions about their well-being and where they have been for the past 24-48 hours before they are allowed to train. 

“It’s very weird, but what they have set up is fantastic; they’ve done absolutely great, and I’m very grateful,” he said. 

Another reported league proposal has MLS asking the MLSPA for players to take a 20 percent pay cut this season. 

Walkes said that while players don’t want a pay cut, he understands conversations need to take place to move the league forward. He said he’s not being stubborn and is willing to take steps to try to move the season toward a green light.

“It’s a topic where the players and the league have to work together to try to find the best solution,” Meza said.

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