Second-year midfielder Siad Haji wants to help the San Jose Earthquakes win the MLS is Back Tournament but he is also concerned.
The tournament, which began last Wednesday with Orlando City’s 2-1 win over Inter Miami, is being held during the COVID-19 pandemic at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. San Jose opened the tournament with a scoreless draw against the Seattle Sounders on Friday. Haji was on the bench but did not play.
MLS suspended its regular season on March 12 due to the coronavirus, one day after the NBA did the same.
The league has instituted a “bubble” to prevent the spread of the coronavirus but Nashville SC and FC Dallas withdrew from the tournament last week due to a number of positive tests within their clubs.
Nine Nashville players tested positive for the virus after the club arrived in Orlando on July 3. Ten players and one member of FC Dallas’ technical staff tested positive following the team’s arrival in Orlando on June 27.
Florida had more than 244,000 COVID-19 cases as of last Friday.
Haji, who was born at a refugee camp in Kenya after his parents fled war-torn Somalia and moved to New Hampshire with his family in 2004, has taken safety precautions when talking with players from other teams since San Jose got to Orlando on June 24.
“To be honest, I’m worried but the team is doing pretty well in terms of obviously making it mandatory to have masks on, wash our hands, basically not going around, not being somewhere we’re not supposed to,” said Haji, 20, who graduated from Manchester Central in 2016. “With teams catching it, I’m extremely cautious as well — just so when I interact with other players, even if I know them, I’m saying, ‘Hi,’ rather than fist bumps or touching each other. I really stay away from the other teams.”
The remaining 24 teams in the tournament are split between two hotels — each team is assigned a floor that is reserved for only its players and personnel — and has designated training times, said Haji.
Haji, who played in four games for San Jose and another 15 for its United Soccer League affiliate last year, said the Earthquakes were the first club to arrive in the bubble in Orlando. Before that, he trained individually and, eventually, with teammates in San Jose, another area of the country that has been hit hard by the pandemic.
Santa Clara County, which includes San Jose, had more than 5,600 COVID-19 cases and more than 160 deaths due to the virus as of last Thursday.
“It was scary,” Haji said. “You miss friends and all but all that needed to be paused. I was communicating with my parents back home and family, making sure they were OK as well. It’s something that really helped me get through this.
“It was tricky in terms of going out. You have to do grocery shopping but you don’t want to be caught up with the virus. It was really hectic. I didn’t like it at all.”
Haji said the team began training together again in San Jose about a month ago and it was the last in the league to do so. During sessions, each player had his own water bottle, trained in designated boxed areas and ran on his own, Haji said. When players arrived at the stadium, their temperatures were taken and they answered a COVID-19 questionnaire, he said.
“It was really different,” said Haji, who recorded 16 goals and 20 assists over his collegiate career with both Division III New England College and Division I Virginia Commonwealth University. “You can see your friends right across the field but you can’t pass the ball to each other, you can’t have contact.”
Alongside the pandemic, the MLS is Back Tournament is also happening during the social unrest in the country following the death of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police on May 25.
Haji and Earthquakes teammate Jacob Akanyirige were among more than 100 black MLS players who raised their right fists and knelt before the tournament’s opening match last Wednesday. The demonstration was an initiative of the recently-created Black Players for Change organization, which embodies more than 170 black MLS players.
Earthquakes players wore hand-written messages on the back of the jerseys supporting the Black Lives Matter movement during their game against Seattle.
“I want everybody to understand that we’re all one,” Haji said. “If one person starts to look at themselves in the mirror and doing their part, (we’ll) live better.”
While San Jose was the last team to begin organized training and did not have contact practices until it arrived in Orlando, Haji said he and his teammates do not feel like they are at a disadvantage in the tournament.
“It’s something we don’t worry much about because the team is strong, we’re a family and we really work day in and day out,” Haji said.
After thinking the MLS season might be canceled, Haji is happy to pursue the tournament championship.
“Just being able to start the tournament, having everybody compete and winning the trophy is the ultimate goal I’m excited for,” Haji said.