MLS Fans Grapple With The New Normal of Sports in the Age of COVID
This was supposed to be different. It’s a common theme that could be applied to just about anything this year.
Pink smoke filled the Fort Lauderdale air on a warm day to kick off July. Drums were banging melodically in festive banter. The smell of grills wafted in the air. It certainly had all the telltale signs of a successful tailgate in the middle of the MLS season.
But things aren’t as they seem in 2020.
The shouts were somewhat muffled by men and women wearing masks. And that pink smoke, it would dissipate and vanish in time, much like the beloved Inter Miami CF.
The franchise is celebrating its infancy in an inaugural season that was paused two games in due to a global pandemic that halted nearly all American sports leagues.
The team whose president and part-owner is David Beckham is yet to enjoy its first home game, that fixture was originally scheduled for March 14 in a game that pitted Miami CF against the L.A. Galaxy.
Two losses and stay-at-home jubilation are all this fanbase has to show for a truly remarkable inaugural season.
But this is the new normal, savoring the good when you can get it and cheering on your team when you get that opportunity.
“It was really important for us to try to do something special for the guys,” Paul McDonough Inter Miami COO and sporting director said. “I think, you know, the fans coming out. It shows how important the team is to them.”
And the boys got just that. They get a pre-tournament celebration before the team settles into the quiet and isolation of competitive play.
Much like the NBA, MLS is heading into its own bubble. Players are separating themselves to reopen play with the MLS is Back Tournament on July 8, fans will be rooting and cheering and supporting but doing so from home; the reverberations of which will certainly be felt by the team.
Instead of Miami Freedom Park, Inter Miami CF and other participating teams will be playing from the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando.
The tournament starts amid a global pandemic. Cases in Florida now surpass 178,000 and the Orlando area ranks second in COVID-19 cases in the state.
MLS is already feeling the hardships of pulling off a major tournament in a country that continues to see its infection numbers rise.
FC Dallas had to recently pull out of the tournament after 10 of its players tested positive, making it hard to move forward with training and competition.
This year has been all about enjoying the good amid the bad, savoring the joy while so much uncertainty lingers.
“To not be able to see the team plays it's, I don't know, it's disappointing,” Vice City 1896 founder Christopher Moramarco said. "But like I said, we've come a long way. And to have our own team, our own brand, our own fans kind of coming together. It shows that the city is ready and we're not going anywhere.”
Inter Miami CF kicks off play July 8 against rival Orlando FC
“There are no fans in the stadium, but we know that our fans are watching us on TV,” midfielder Wil Trapp recently told MLSSoccer.com. “We know that they care immensely about this game in particular, and even more so there's a trophy at stake.”
Vice City 1896 is the team’s supporter squad. And its mission is to channel a passion that is already alive and well in Miami into support for this budding franchise.
“But it's not just about the game,” Moramarco said. “It’s the culture something that we don't have in Miami as a whole and we're kind of bringing that to life. I don't think that we're doing anything new. We're just awakening something that was always there, which is the spirit of the game and everything that goes with it, the drumming, barbecuing, the get-togethers. So it's second nature to us.”
And with them, supporters will rally around a team that is quickly being weaved into the fabric of local culture.
From the Vice City 1896 website: “In a city built around Latin culture, we strive to resemble a dynamic environment similar to what we grew up around in Latin American soccer stadiums. Vice City 1896 is revolutionizing what it means to be a football fan in The US. We are bringing the community together to create a “family” that will represent the passion of Miami day in and day out.”
The trick is whittling an outlet for that passion. Fans of all sport are missing out on the one thing that made sports loyalty such a grand experience, community.
Thousands would normally make their way to the stadium on game day or the local bar. But in the age of COVID, gatherings are fewer and doused in the anxiety that one event could be a flashpoint for a spike in cases.
When play does return on July 8, one supporter group, The Siege, plans on going old school with their fan patronage.
Instead of abiding by the new normal of watching at home, the group will host watch parties at places like Xtreme Action Park in Fort Lauderdale.
“We wanted to provide an option for people that want to do it in a public space,” Siege president Max Ramos told the Sun Sentinel. “We’ve spoken extensively about social distancing and proper safety procedures.”
It’s a decision indicative of a country still toeing the line of stay-at-home orders. Some states are more lenient; others far more restrictive.
Fans eager to celebrate are left with a tough decision.
“While some may find it dangerous to do in general, we are trying to do the best we can in the middle while following the laws, because the biggest issue has been not just the fact that people go out, but when they do they’re not following the proper safety precautions,” Ramos continued.
Fans will be required to wear masks and social distance. But the freedom of unfettered frivolity will be absent no matter how well rules are followed.
This is just how this season, this fractured, astounding season will continue to play out.
Supporters will shout, many from home. Pink smoke will fill the air, but it will be to send off the boys to a safer environment.
And while the aroma of barbecues still fill the summer air its presence helps remind that while things are remarkably different this year, some things stay the same.
The passion remains.