Pandemic puts additional strain on international MLS players

<p>
              FILE - In this Nov. 10, 2019, file photo, Seattle Sounders' Kelvin Leerdam, right, heads the ball in front of Toronto FC's Jonathan Osorio during the second half of the MLS Cup championship soccer match in Seattle. Leerdam has been fortunate compared to many of the other foreign players in Major League Soccer, and it was completely by accident. Born in Suriname but raised in the Netherlands, Leerdam still makes his full-time home in Europe when he’s not playing for the Seattle Sounders.  When the school schedule in the Netherlands lined up for his wife and two young children to join him in Seattle for the start of the MLS season in early March, Leerdam jumped at the chance to have his family together. Little did they know that the COVID-19 virus pandemic was about to overtake much of the world, making travel for his family a major challenge. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
            </p>

SEATTLE (AP) — Kelvin Leerdam has been fortunate compared to many of the other foreign players in Major League Soccer, and it was completely by accident.

Born in Suriname but raised in the Netherlands, Leerdam still makes his full-time home in Europe when he’s not playing for the Seattle Sounders. When the school schedule in the Netherlands lined up for his wife and two young children to join him in Washington state for the start of the MLS season last month, Leerdam jumped at the opportunity to bring his family here.

They made it before the COVID-19 pandemic overtook much of the world, making travel a major challenge.

“They were supposed to come here and have a good time,” Leerdam said. “Then everything changed.”

No other top-flight league in the world has the same geographic diversity as MLS, which had 74 different nationalities represented at the start of the 2020 season, according to data from Sports Reference. The Premier League had 63 nationalities represented among its players for the 2019-20 season. Same for the Bundesliga. Serie A in Italy had 65. La Liga in Spain had 52.

The diversity has been good for MLS, but now it has also been a source of emotional and mental strain during the pandemic, which shut the season down in early March after only two weeks. Foreign players and coaches were subsequently stuck in North America, and while in many cases they have their spouses and children with them, they are often separated from other family and loved ones spread around the world.

“We’re constantly communicating with them (players). And if there’s something they might need, we will work very hard to provide it,” said Portland Timbers coach Giovanni Savarese, who has extended family in Italy. “These are times that are very difficult. Our generation has not gone through this type of situation, so every day we have a new challenge. The good thing is that everyone is in constant communication to make sure that we always know if someone is of need of something.”

MLS has extended its training moratoriums on several occasions, the latest until May 15. The earliest the league will return to action is June 8. Players have been receiving their regular pay, but there have been conversations about potential salary reductions. The league has asked players to remain in their local markets, but said it would consider requests for car travel outside the local area.

That’s left players and coaches from Europe, Central and South America and even the few from Asia wondering whether there will be an opportunity at some point to go back home.

“I just think that it is a world problem at the minute, obviously. We’re all one country right now,” Montreal coach Thierry Henry said. “Either way, wherever you are, we’re all worried about our families, thinking about how everyone is, making sure we’re respecting the rules by staying at home and not passing on that obviously vicious virus. I try to speak with my family as much as I can, and see how they are doing, how they’re coping with everything that’s happening.”

While there have been text threads created and online virtual meetings set up among players, daily and weekly check-ins have become part of the to-do list for coaches. The kinds of interactions that used to happen in the locker room or on the training ground now take place electronically.

Saverese said the Timbers are using an app where players can chat about how they’re doing.

“The guys that are coming here from overseas and don’t have the greatest support system, it’s important for us to reach out to them a little bit more, as opposed to Chris Seitz, who has been here forever and has five kids to keep him busy,” D.C. United coach Ben Olsen said.

Real Salt Lake newcomer Giuseppe Rossi was born in the U.S. before moving to Italy when he was 12. He’s played in the Premier League, La Liga and Serie A in his professional career, but his roots are in two of the major virus hot spots: Italy and New Jersey.

“I have my aunt who lives a kilometer away from my from my cousin, her son, and they haven’t seen each other in like a month, a month and a half,” Rossi said of his Italian family. “I mean, it’s just bizarre. It’s crazy.”

Savarese is in a similar situation. Savarese was born and raised in Venezuela but his parents are Italian and moved back to their home country. His mind has been split between concern for his family and players here and his extended family in Europe.

“I have family members that are police, that have to be in the streets of Bologna, where it’s very complicated. (They are) afraid in going outside in the street. And seeing how many people have passed, it’s incredible,” Saverese said. “The situations in the hospitals, it is very worrisome.

“We’re connected every day. I have another cousin who is at home as well that is afraid because of a neighbor that contracted the virus. It is a situation that we have to make sure we’re in constant communication, that we follow the guidelines, and hopefully this time is going to pass. But it’s definitely difficult times.”