There's plenty of caution and hesitation and some late curveballs as MLS prepares to restart its 2020 season, but there are also those who are eager to get going.
One such player is Nani, Orlando City's Portuguese star and captain, who will take center stage in Wednesday's opening match against new Florida foe Inter Miami. The match will kickstart the MLS Is Back tournament, a competition designed and adapted for the coronavirus era to resume a season that was stopped after two matches apiece for the league's 26 teams in March.
“I’m very excited. Just waiting to see how it’s going to be,” Nani, now in his second season in MLS, told Sports Illustrated. “I think everyone is waiting to see how all the other teams will perform after all these months in quarantine, and to adjust–the teams, the players–I think that’s something everyone is waiting to see.”
Nani and his team made the short trip to Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex last week, and they have been living and training inside the MLS bubble. The accommodations are inside the Swan and Dolphin Resort, in Orange County, while the neighboring Osceola County is where the sports complex is located.
“At the beginning it was a little bit strange, because you came from a different reality, you are home, you feel freer to do whatever you want," Nani said. "It’s less people, it’s just you and your family. But out here, at the beginning it was a bit confusing. But when the time passed and the days (passed) you feel more comfortable and you get used to it. You just learn to protect yourself, what you can do and what you cannot do, and then you have every time available–to gel, to watch your hands, to use your mask so you feel comfortable and you feel safe. The league did a great job to keep all the teams here and maintain the security of everyone. I hope we can keep on this condition, so nobody gets the virus or has to go back home until the end of the tournament.”
Unfortunately, Nani’s wish won't be granted, at least not in full. The buildup to the competition hasn’t exactly been flush with positive news. FC Dallas will not participate in the competition after a high number of positive coronavirus tests within the club continued to climb since arriving to the bubble on June 27. Nashville SC is also reportedly dealing with multiple positive tests. According to MLS, out of 557 players in Orlando, 13 have tested positive for the virus. Multiple squads have had to change their travel itineraries on the fly, while one of the league’s biggest stars and last season’s record-setting MVP, LAFC’s Carlos Vela, opted out of play altogether for family reasons.
Nani may appreciate the fact that the league is transparent and constantly in protocol-update mode in order to do everything it can to keep this tournament going, but he also sees the other side. He says he understands why some players like Vela chose not to participate, especially when the competition is taking place in a state where the infection-rate continues to climb. This past weekend, it surpassed 200,000 cases since the outbreak.
“First of all, I’m human and I respect any decision from any teammate or any other player who wants to stay at home. They feel uncomfortable to come here and I understand,” Nani said. “But this is my job. I work playing soccer, and I live for that. I’ve been doing this since I was a kid. And I always put myself in risk, even when it wasn’t coronavirus, and it was gangs to make you afraid, so I respect all the other players as well who have sacrificed to be here and to make this tournament happen.”
Nani grew up in the underprivileged Amadora neighborhood in Lisbon, abandoned by his parents when he was young, raised by a loving aunt. He used to walk miles to just be seen by his first club, Sporting CP, so when he talks about risk and struggle, it’s worth taking him at his word. But he is also cognizant of the virus's effects and what it can do to a person.
“There are two points of view on the decision from the players, and we have to understand and respect because we are human,” he said.
For Nani, the glass is always half full, and he is always looking for ways to inspire, which is why he recently posted an image on Instagram showing his incredible physique. He wanted to let others know that even during a pandemic, you can always find motivation to be the best version of yourself (even though most of us won’t be able to match that kind of version).
“I’m the kind of person who never gives up, even in the hard moments. I always try to find a way to feel good, to feel motivated and to do my best. So that’s what I did so now I feel good, I feel confident and I hope I can help my team, but yes that (the photo) was one of the secrets during quarantine,” he said.
In terms of the tournament, Nani believes that a mini-World Cup-formatted competition–especially after a long period in which there has been no action or even warmup friendlies–makes for a level playing field. There are no favorites as far as he is concerned.
“I think it’s equal for everyone. Being away from our facilities for so long, we had to adapt ourselves to come back as soon as possible,” he said. “But before you see the teams on the field playing a game, you cannot say who will be the favorite, who’s going to win or who is better than whom. You need to see the teams; you need to see how they will perform, how the motivation of the players will be. But one thing I can tell is that we are working hard, and our coach (Oscar Pareja) has been giving everything to us, trying to help us improve and our game. And I think we’ve been doing great work. Let’s see how the team will be on the field because we didn’t play friendlies and we didn’t so much like in normal preseason.”
Orlando went 0-1-1 in MLS play before the season was halted, and it–barring a change to the groups necessitated by FC Dallas's withdrawal–will face NYCFC, the Philadelphia Union, Chicago Fire and Nashville after Wednesday's opener vs. Miami. Orlando has never made the MLS playoffs in five seasons, but with, as Nani sees it, a level playing field and some semblance of a home advantage, perhaps its MLS Is Back experience can match Nani's positive outlook.