COVID-19 has had a significant impact on people all over the world. The pandemic delayed sports globally for months and stadiums were empty upon their return. One team that’s noticed the impact of the virus is Orlando City B.
The OCB roster is largely made up of first-year professionals. Many of these players came out of the club’s academy and are still teenagers. The goal is to have them develop by playing against players who are older, stronger, and more experienced. Ideally, this will help them prepare for when they’re needed for the first team.
The USL League One season was about to begin when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. All sports leagues were cancelled or postponed, including America’s third division. After a period of questioning whether a season would be played, the league announced that it would play a shortened schedule.
Originally slated to be 28 games, the season was ultimately cut to 16 games. This had a bigger impact on some teams than others. While the shortened schedule didn’t impact the independent teams as much, developmental teams were greatly affected. A major part of the developmental sides, like OCB, is giving their young players game time against more experienced opponents. With fewer games on the schedule, there’s less time for them to see the field.
After the pandemic hit, most teams were shut down, forcing the players to work out from home. Developmental teams have several players who are 16 to 18 years of age. Those are the prime years of development for a young soccer player. The pandemic meant that those players were unable to train as the club would desire, potentially hindering their development.
Even when they did come back, there was the risk that someone could test positive. That would result in them self-isolating from the rest of the team. That’s what happened to 20-year-old midfielder Austin Amer. A holdover from the 2019 team, Amer spent time in the Orlando City academy and is one of the players who might have a future with the first team. Earlier this season, Amer told a media outlet in Tampa that he tested positive, resulting in him spending time away from the team. While he subsequently tested negative and returned, that was time that he wasn’t able to spend training in a professional environment.
Just as impactful as a player self-isolating, positives during the season result in the postponement of games. The Young Lions have now had two games postponed this season because of positive tests. The first postponed game was supposed to be against the Richmond Kickers on Sept. 19 when members of the OCB organization tested positive. That game was eventually made up Wednesday night. Just over two hours before OCB was to kick off against Chattanooga Red Wolves SC Saturday afternoon, it was announced that two members of the Chattanooga organization tested positive, forcing the postponement of that game.
The most difficult part of these postponed games is when they’ll be made up. An already truncated schedule ends up with multiple games in a week when you have to add makeup games due to postponements. Given that the test results often come close to the game, the team might’ve already traveled to the city in which the game is to take place. A positive test results in more travel and less time to train as the team must travel back home and, if their team had the positive test, go through contact tracing and additional testing.
This year’s pandemic has also impacted the atmosphere the players have experienced. Part of being a professional is playing in front of a crowd and dealing with the media. For safety, OCB home games this season have been played without fans and without external media. Even though many of their away games were played with fans in attendance, some of those games had fewer fans than there would’ve been in any other year.
Most of the first-year professional players have yet to play in front of a crowd of thousands or dealt with questions from the media following games. While the crowds in Kissimmee were likely to be in the hundreds rather than thousands, they would’ve played opponents that tend to draw a larger number of spectators. They also would’ve had to handle questions following poor performances or answer questions that might not be enjoyable. That’s something that is commonplace in MLS and experiencing that with OCB helps provide confidence in those situations in the future.
In all likelihood, the pandemic wouldn’t have changed much about the season. As a young developmental team, OCB was always likely to finish near the bottom of the standings, if not in last place. Its struggles this year would’ve likely occurred with or without the coronavirus. But from the number of games played to the experience of being a professional, COVID-19 has definitely impacted OCB’s season.