SAN ANTONIO – Sports leagues around the United States have had to navigate all sorts of health and safety logistics as they attempt to ramp back up into midseason form during the pandemic.
The USL Championship is going through that same phase right now.
Last week, the USL announced that the 2020 season would resume with a shortened, 16-game “World Cup” format. The league has been divided into eight different groups, each comprised of four or five teams from a similar geographic region to limit travel and potential exposure to the coronavirus. San Antonio FC will compete in the Western Conference’s Group D alongside traditional rivals OKC Energy FC, Rio Grande Valley FC, Austin Bold FC and TC Tulsa.
With the season roughly two weeks away from restarting, the Alamo City club is thrilled to be back on the pitch together.
“It’s really exciting,” midfielder Hayden Partain said. “I would probably speak for everyone that we’re just excited to get off the couch, get out of our homes and get back to doing what we all love. It’s here now. It’s really close. We’re keying in on, and focusing on, every detail that we need to take care of.”
Throughout the pandemic, SAFC used Zoom meetings to keep players connected with coaching staff and organize individual workouts. With regulations on outdoor practices softening in recent weeks, players have trickled back onto the practice field, steadily shifting from training in their own 40-square foot quadrants to full team workouts. While practices may be returning to a semblance of normalcy, they come with a whole new set of guidelines.
“We still have very strict protocols to follow to make sure that we’re a safe distance away most of the time, but it’s a contact sport, so there’s going to be sometime we’re going to be exposed to each other,” Partain explains. “But for the most part, it’s normal training. It’s as normal as it’s going to be for now. You can’t recreate the flow and fitness that soccer gives. All of these individual workouts and things we do on our own... there’s only so much that actually translates. There are a couple things that were sloppy, but for the most part everybody was steady and increased into it.”
“We first built the group, and now we’re on the field,” forward Luis Solignac said. “I think we need to be very grateful because this situation is still very bad for the world, and we have the permission to keep working and keep doing what we like. We’ve got to really appreciate that.”
Head coach Alen Marcina made it clear that the health of every member of the organization is a top priority. “We’re going to be vigilant in what we do and in our protocols. We’ll continue to implement what the league requests, what the city and state have put before us, and do our part to stay safe and healthy.”
With the parameters now in place for a relatively safe return to practice, San Antonio FC has roughly two weeks before the new-look USL season commences. The top two teams in each group will make the playoffs, and with a win already under their belt, the Alamo City club has only 15 games left to secure the franchise’s first playoff berth since 2017.
“There’s a lot more at stake now, but we have a deep roster, and now we have two extra subs each game,” Partain said. “Every team is dealing with the same standards and the same protocols. We all have the same season, we all have the same factors. We just have to find a way to win.”