Operating under the guidance of local and state health authorities, last week the United Soccer League announced a modification to the previously announced training moratorium that will allow Championship and League One clubs, at their option, to open outdoor fields for non-contact training in small groups as well as training rooms for player treatment.
When Governor Tom Wolf announced Friday that Allegheny County will be among the 13 counties in the Commonwealth moving to yellow phase of re-opening starting this Friday, it spurred the Riverhounds to move forward in following along with the USL’s training protocol.
The Hounds will be welcoming players back this weekend.
“We’re going ahead, that’s the plan,” Riverhounds Head Coach Bob Lilley said on Monday. “We’ve been on the phone with our training staff, to go over how it’s going to look. All protocols will be in effect. Allegheny Health Network has their guidelines which we’ll follow. Everyone will be six feet apart. Trainers will be wearing masks. Players and trainers will have to have temperatures checked. If anyone has symptoms, they will have to be quarantined.”
According to the USL, small group settings will be limited to up to four players, with no more than one athletic trainer and one member of a club’s technical staff allowed on each field during a session.
Teams in areas where local and state recommendations for stay-at-home orders have not been lifted should not train or allow treatment that is prohibited by their jurisdiction. In addition, all clubs will notify the league of their plans to return to the team’s training facility prior to re-opening and training is voluntary for players.
The USL previously extended its training moratorium through May 15 for all of its professional clubs.
“As a staff, we have to get ready,” Lilley explained. “It will be a lot different than training as a full team. I know as staff, we want to be prepared and make best of whatever situation put in front of us. We feel like the players have done a good job and done their best to keep training. It’s not game fitness, but they’re not at ground zero either.”
The players have been doing mile runs, Connecting with the coaches and trainer Bob Smith via Zoom calls. They’ve been doing cone work in garages and backyards too.
Every week, the Hounds are doing three days of workouts over Zoom with the technical staff, with three days of individual work sprinkled in. The Hounds are working on having the players operating at 70- to 80% fitness levels.
Lilley said that players who have been away since March will be coming back to Pittsburgh this weekend, and will begin in-person training sessions, with a coach and a trainer present with each small group, as early as Monday.
“There are things they can work on. Get more sharpness on ball. Doing certain things technically,” Lilley said. “It’s not like we don’t have experience working with players this way, but but it’s definitely different than what we’re used to.”
As the Hounds will be taking a step closer to coming back together as a team, The Athletic reported on Saturday evening, the USL Players Association (USLPA) held a conference call with each club’s player representatives. The call was to discuss a pair of documents sent by the USL office, outlining potential pay cuts due to the affected 2020 Championship season.
These changes would have to be agreed upon by both the players and the league before going into effect. As of Saturday night, players had not decided their next move in reaction to the documents. A USLPA spokesperson declined to comment.
“The request to the USLPA for consideration of a compensation adjustment was not an easy one, and only taken as a last resort,” said a USL spokesperson in The Athletic report. “COVID-19 has brought with it serious economic hardship for people and industries all over the country and our clubs have not been immune to that. We welcome further conversation with the USLPA about reasonable steps that can be taken to help ensure we’re in the best position possible to bring professional soccer to our communities in 2020.”
When asked about this, Lilley said it was news to him.
“What’s going on with league and players union, I’m not privy to that information,” Lilley said.
Last week, a Riverhounds team spokesperson confirmed all full-time staffers and stadium workers are being paid as usual and Lilley confirmed last week with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that team owner Tuffy Shallenberger was “able to file for relief” to keep team-related personnel on payroll throughout the pandemic.
As far as the two documents sent from the league office, the first outlines “Return-to-Play Protocols,” granting the league exclusive authority to institute measures towards the resumption of the 2020 season while “the USLPA expressly waives its statutory right to bargain over such Return-to-Play Protocols.” The second, a force majeure clause, would go into effect if the 2020 USL Championship season was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Per multiple sources, the standard USL contract does not contain a force majeure clause, which frees a party or parties in a contract from liability for not fulfilling the contract’s terms.
Also, according to the report, most league teams have paid players approximately 40 percent of their salaries thus far, even though the league has played just three percent of its schedule, and some teams, such as the Riverhounds, haven’t even played a match. The Hounds were 48 hours from kickoff of its season opener when the USL announced its season suspension.
“Everything’s still very much up in the air,” Lilley reiterated on Monday, as he, along with many in the soccer and sports world are anxious to see how things unfold, particularly with soccer’s first real test, as the re-start of Bundesliga in Germany is on schedule for this coming weekend, with games being played behind closed doors.
“With closed door games you can control the environment lot more. In our league, much of revenue is generated from ticket sales. Cost for closed door games would be significantly higher,” Lilley said. “A lot of people are going to watch and see what happens in Germany. What if, in the next three days, something happens, or players are test positive? Or if they start playing, how will the other leagues react? You’re guess is as good as mine.”
Lilley is prepared for a potential short window before the Riverhounds and the USL Championship would potentially start games.
“The league (USL Championship) has many scenarios — from starting in June or as late as August. There’s still a lot of concern what will happen in September and October.”
For now, the Riverhounds are glad, along with so many in Western Pennsylvania, to be moving to yellow starting Friday, but like most everyone, they’ll proceed cautiously.
“We’re very limited” Lilley added. “As staff we’re doing what we can do. What we need to do and doing the best job we can.”