As Real Salt Lake enters the 2021 Major League Soccer preseason, it is presented with some of the same hurdles surrounding the pandemic as it did in 2020 but will also be faced with new challenges to keep its players, staff and fans safe.
To gain an understanding of the challenges ahead and how the club aims to stay safe and healthy throughout the 2021 season, RSL.com sat down with Director of Sports Medicine and Head Athletic Trainer Theron Enns as he and his team lead the implementation of the safety protocols in 2021.
Q: How will the club keep players, staff and fans safe as the pandemic continues?
Enns: “We learned a lot from 2020 and the processes it took to carry out a safe and exciting 2020 season. Last year was a steep learning curve for everybody at the league and each of its teams. Through that we were able to build upon what we learned last year to have programs and protocols in place to keep everyone safe. MLS issues a standard protocol of things that must be done and then we tailor it to our specific situation. Everything from how people enter the facilities, how much room do they have in the locker room, how many people are allowed in each room based on the size of the room. We tailor everything to the Zions Bank Training Center and Rio Tinto Stadium to determine what is going to work best for us.”
Q: What are the biggest takeaways from the 2020 season?
Enns: “The biggest one was now we’re not surprised by anything anymore. That’s the learning process because things change so rapidly these days. Being able to adapt is another thing. Once you get people into a rhythm and everyone understands what is expected of them then we can all stay safe during the season. In 2020 I was amazed because we were in a state where things were more open than other places in terms of life outside facility walls. We learned that you can stay safe and go about your business and all of us were good about staying safe.”
Q: What implementations are new for the 2021 preseason?
Enns: “There’s nothing really new from last year. We still have masking and testing policies in place along with sanitary procedures – cleaning facilities, washing hands, staying socially separated. Nothing has really changed dramatically in that respect. There are rules that have been stepped-up in a way from last year. For example: there’s a greater emphasis on mask wearing during physical activities. Last year the players weren’t required to wear a mask while working out in the gym. Now, they have to wear one during workouts. The only time within the facility players do not have to wear a mask is when they’re playing soccer on the field. We’ve also stepped up the types of testing as follow up cases begin to appear. If a player or staff member tests positive for COVID or have had it in the offseason, the testing has increased in terms of things like cardiac screening. That’s part of the ever-evolving understanding of this disease. We had rules in place that constituted testing for those situations but now there’s an added layer of screening to ensure there aren’t any long-term factors in the cardiac realm. But, most of the general rules that applied last year will apply again in 2021.”
Q: How is the staff at the club staying safe?
Enns: “The overall health and well-being of everyone is important. Last year we established a tier structure where staff members were placed into certain tiers based on their interactions with the players. Obviously, the players need to be on the field and that’s the most important front-facing part of the organization, but there’s interactions behind the scenes that have to be monitored. We had an extensive list of staff that were on the same testing schedule as the players. That includes the medical staff, equipment staff, coaching staff, front office, PR and digital staffs. Everyone was involved and being tested on this rhythm. In doing so we’ve implemented a “look out for each other” mentality and have gotten everyone involved in mask wearing and sanitary measures.”
Q: How has the medical team’s jobs and life changed during the pandemic?
Enns: “I think it’s different this year than it was last year. In 2020 we prepared normally before everything crashed down. Preseason provides its own challenges to prepare for. Now there’s an added layer of considerations for protocols for players, doctors, staffs, etc. Every decision we make has to be looked at through the lens of COVID. It’s not as simple as mixing and matching players from the Academy to the Monarchs to the first team. Every decision we make now comes with four or five other questions to ensure we’re being safe. It’s definitely put more on the medical staff to make sure we’re jumping through those hoops to make sure things are done correctly. But, that’s our job. We’re never going to complain about it but we’re but going to get these things done.”
Q: What aspects of these measures do the fans need to know for their comfort and understanding of these safety measures?
Enns: “Everyone’s experience is totally different. There are parts of the world where the pandemic is raging, and resources are strained, and vaccinations aren’t readily available. Our situation is a little different. We’re dealing with a group of predominantly healthy people with no pre-existing conditions. Discipline is the biggest thing us knowing that this is how we can continue to do our jobs during the pandemic. Our players and staff have a great job under these circumstances. We are fully aware that sports are a source of entertainment, release and joy for people. We know we’re there to be an uplifting presence and it helps knowing that we can all help provide that to people during a time like this. We want fans to experience that joy and we want them back in the stadiums. Empty stadiums are no fun. The only way for that to happen is for everyone to do their part and stay safe and follow the rules. If anyone thinks that professional athletes aren’t following those guidelines, they are. Hopefully fans understand that as we look forward to hopefully a time in 2021 where everyone can join together again and enjoy the sport that we all love.”