As the sports world came to a screeching halt in March due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, many people wondered when sports would return in 2020, if at all?
Almost four months later, there are still questions lingering about the 2020 fall sports season. With the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) opening back up this past weekend and other sports leagues like the NBA, MLS and MLB looking to return to play in early-mid July, it seems as if sports in America might be returning to normal.
However, recent spikes of COVID-19 across the country have given health officials a few doubts about whether sports will return, with or without fans, in the fall. While most are paying attention to the return of college football and the NFL, there are other sports, such as college soccer and volleyball, that are hoping to start back up in the coming months.
“I am optimistic and proceeding as if we are going to be open,” said Coastal Carolina men’s soccer head coach Shaun Docking. “Hopefully, things will go ahead in the fall as planned.”
Docking says that the tentative start date for the men’s soccer season is Aug. 11.
Throughout the pandemic, players and coaches have been pushed to their limits due to the restrictions and guidelines that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced upon us all. Here’s a breakdown of what has gone on stateside and across the pond in Europe as the Chanticleers prepare for the 2020 season.
Prior to the pandemic, the Chanticleers men’s soccer program saw a double change in their coaching staff. Long-time assistant Kyle Russell left the program to become the new head coach of Florida International University. Russell had been with the program since 2005 when he was a defender for the team. While other coaches had come and gone, Russell was one of the main constants in Docking’s program.
“It has been amazing to see Kyle Russell’s growth as a player, a coach and a person,” said Docking. “I am tremendously excited for him to get his opportunity to be a head coach. FIU is a terrific program and has a great tradition of players going to the professional level. I think it’s a great first job and it’s well-deserved.”
The program also saw assistant coach Kyle Timm take a job for United Soccer League (USL) club Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC as an assistant.
“Kyle Timm and I talked throughout last season about other opportunities,” said Docking. “Even before he joined our staff, he expressed interest in becoming a coach at the professional level. I fully believe that he can make it as a professional coach and I think he’s going to be very successful.”
On March 30, Coastal announced that Oliver Slawson and Chris Fidler were the newest members of the Chanticleer men’s soccer coaching staff.
Slawson has a prolific resume, coming from Ashland University as a head coach, bringing the program up to prominence in Division II after helping start the program from scratch in 2016. Prior to his head coaching job at Ashland, Slawson was an assistant at Akron from 2006 to 2015, where he helped bring the Zips to iconic status. During his time at Akron, the Zips won the MAC regular season title every year, the MAC conference tournament 8 times, went to two Final Fours and won the National Championship in 2010.
At Akron, Slawson was the associate head to Caleb Porter, who would go on to coach the Portland Timbers and lead them to winning MLS Cup in 2015.
“Oliver was heavily involved in recruiting and developing so many names such as DeAndre Yedlin, who helped Newcastle United get promoted to the Premier League in 2017, and Darlington Nagbe, who won MLS Cup with Portland in 2015 and Atlanta in 2018,” said Docking. “I think his standards are excellent.”
Chris Ridler arrives to Coastal from the University of The Incarnate Word, where he was the interim head coach from 2018 to 2019 and was an assistant for years prior to the interim gig.
“Both Oliver and Chris have been head coaches before so they understand the responsibilities and what it takes to run a program,” said Docking.
Before coming to the US, Ridler spent a decade at the Manchester City Youth Academy, where was a player from 1999 to 2006. During his time at one of the top clubs in Europe, he was hailed as one of the top youth goalkeepers in England.
“Chris knows the changes that Man City went through over the years, the standards they have and the way they operate,” said Docking. “Both of these guys are bringing some incredible standards and that is what I was looking for in terms of hiring people.”
While it was great to have the coaching staff set up and squared away, the issue that remained was that the new coaches barely had any interactions, if at all, with the players before the coronavirus pandemic forced the sports world to go silent.
Despite the challenges that have come with the pandemic, the program has adjusted accordingly and the players are still doing what they can in their homes countries to stay on top of their training ahead of the upcoming season.
“We have been getting daily training workouts sent to us by our coaches,” said sophomore forward Sam Snaith. “We’ve gotten cardiovascular workouts so things like shuttle runs. We’ve been given things like 5Ks and 10Ks to do as well.”
For some players like Claudio Repetto, who returned home to Italy in March to be with his family throughout the pandemic, the break has come as a blessing in a twisted kind of way as he has the opportunity to rest his muscles and focus on healing after an injury-plagued 2019 season.
“When you start your season in late July, early August, it's five long months of training, playing in matches and staying on top of your game. Then in the spring you are basically focusing on strength so that you can remain healthy and then in the summer, you are going non-stop with your club team that you signed with,” said Repetto. “This is first real break from hard core training and consistently playing matches in a long time.”
Repetto was supposed to return to USL League Two side's Ocean City Nor’easters for the summer but the pandemic forced the lower divisions of the USL to cancel their seasons. Repetto is now focusing this “down time” to build up his strength. He is currently following the training schedule given to him by his coaches as well as training with someone on the side to work on maintaining his health throughout the season.
International players speak on experiencing COVID-19 in home countries
With half the current roster hailing from other countries, including France and Italy (which were major hotbeds for COVID-19 in the early stages of the pandemic), there were major concerns about players potentially contracting the disease.
“They’re home and you really can’t keep your eye on them, you have to trust them over there,” said Docking. “We had Sam in the U.K., Emile Rzepecki in France and Claudio in Italy and a few others around the world but we also had guys here in the US. Luckily, no one has contracted the disease. And I think that is the major concern, not just for our university but for others as well. How do we get everyone back safely so we can have sports back?”
Those concerns are still prominent as other countries begin to open back up.
“When the pandemic first started, everyone was respectful of the regulations and rules put in place by the government,” said Rzepecki. “But now that things are going back to normal, no one is really following the guidelines anymore.”
Docking made it a point to stay in touch with his players, hoping they would remain safe during a global pandemic.
“He and I talked every day before I made the decision to come back to France,” said Rzepecki. “I came back to France at the beginning of March and immediately went into quarantine. I did the quarantine and throughout that time, he checked in with me regularly. Since things have slowed, we talk once every week or so.”
Rzepecki’s home country of France has seen a decrease in COVID-19 cases, with the country going the entire month of June without having a daily new case count of more than 1,000. The French have come a long way from March 31, when they saw their highest spike in daily new cases at 7,578.
The same can be said for Repetto’s home country of Italy, a country that was once the epicenter of the pandemic in Europe. And the country’s active cases list is steadily decreasing as it nears 15,000 active cases compared to the 41,000 active cases at the start of the month.
“I returned to Italy for my family,” said Repetto. “By the time things were getting bad in the United States, things were kind of slowing down in Italy. My family had to close their business back home and it stayed closed for over three months so I just felt that I had to come home and be with them and help them out during this difficult time.”
Over in the United Kingdom, Snaith says that things have started opening back up in Wales, and that has allowed him to get back out and somewhat return to a sense of normalcy.
“Things have truly started to open back up within the past two weeks,” said Snaith. “I can actually go out with my friends, socially distanced of course, and hang out at places have been closed for the past several months now.”
Spirits remain high, despite uncertainty
Many of the CCU men’s soccer players remain hopeful that a season will happen this fall, whether they allow fans or not.
“I feel that there will be a season this year,” said Repetto. “I think there needs to be one. We haven’t played in a long time. It’s my senior season as well and I want to finish strong and I want to finish at Coastal.”
Back in mid-May, the Bundesliga, the top division of professional soccer in Germany, restarted after two months of not playing due to the pandemic. Shortly after, the English Premier League, Serie A (Italy’s top division) and La Liga (Spain’s top division) have all restarted their seasons.
Here in the United States, the NWSL has resumed play and other leagues such as MLS, MLB, NBA and the NHL are preparing for a return.
“I think the other leagues around the world and in the United States will really give the NCAA confidence on whether or not to pursue our season,” said Snaith.
Snaith still has some concerns as how the season will play out, should there be soccer in August.
“I still don’t know how it is going to pan out,” said Snaith. “If we do have a season, it won’t be the same. There will definitely be some changes and that’s what concerns me. How are they going to manage this and solve any issues that come up?”
Even with many questions still surrounding the upcoming season, many players are believing that this could be the season that Coastal makes a lengthy postseason run to national championship glory.
“I feel like we have the talent, belief, determination to make that run,” said Snaith.
Coastal finished last season with a record of 10-8-3, winning the Sun Belt Tournament on penalties, beating NC State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament but falling to #3 SMU in double overtime.
Despite what looked like a successful season on paper, there are some players that feel that last year could have gone differently and hope that those mistakes aren’t made this time around.
“Last year, we started with two good wins but then kind of fell and we had to qualify for the NCAA Tournament by winning our conference tournament instead of getting the at-large,” said Rzpecki. “This year, I want us to be in the top 15. We want to not have to play in the opening round and be able to be the deciders of who comes to play us instead of taking long trips around the country in a short amount of time like how we did last year.”
Going into this season, Docking is looking to his seniors to help guide the team to another postseason run as well as Snaith, who was the team’s leading goal scorer last season and was named the 2019 Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year.
“I think [Docking] knows how serious I am about the program and I think he likes that,” said Snaith. “There are a few others that share the same mentality as myself and coach has really picked us out to help lead the team forward this year.”
When it comes to the discussion of playing with fans or behind closed doors, the players and coaches understand if matches are played without fans in attendance. Regardless of fans or no fans, the team has a message for their supporters going into the 2020 season.
“We want everybody to be safe,” said Docking. “Hopefully, we have the fans there with us. If not, Coastal does a fantastic job with production and putting our games online.”