On March 12, the 2020 USL Championship season was suspended in light of the COVID-19 crisis and the World Health Organization’s classification of the disease as a pandemic. The Championship was not alone in this decision, joining every other major American sports league – including USL League One – in ceasing play while society grappled with how to manage the virus. Shortly thereafter, it began work on putting together a series of policies and protocols that would ultimately govern any potential return to play and help ensure the health and wellness of all involved remained its single most important priority.
USL consulted with a variety of stakeholders in the development of these protocols. As an initial matter, the league’s Board of Governors created a “Hiatus Task Force” to dive deeply into issues related to health and safety. Members of the Hiatus Task Force were nominated by the teams and then selected based (in part) on their relationship with other leagues grappling with the same issues. Through that process, we were able to understand many of the best practices instilled by Major League Soccer, the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, and the National Women’s Soccer League. To this end, USL also actively participated in the United States Soccer Federation’s COVID-19 task force, through which it worked closely with MLS and NWSL to share best practices specific to the soccer context. The USL Players Association (“USLPA”) reviewed, commented on, and provided input to the 2020 Protocols, the USLPA bargaining committee approved them, and they were ratified by its membership. The USLPA has continued to review, comment on, and provide input to the 2021 version of these Protocols, the USLPA bargaining committee once again approved them, and they have again been ratified by its membership.
Most importantly, USL consulted early and often with a broad array of medical experts about the nature of the virus, when it would be safe to effectuate a return to play, and what protocols should be in place to mitigate risk. These experts include Dr. Jon McCullers, Sr. Executive Associate Dean of Clinical Affairs and Chief Operating Officer at the College of Medicine at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center; Dr. Howard Chrisman, the President of Northwestern Medical Group at the Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine; and Dr. George Chiampas, the Chief Medical Officer of the United States Soccer Federation. Although no activity can ever be completely risk free, our experts agree that these protocols are reasonable and rigorous – and that moving forward under these protocols involves a medically acceptable level of risk.
It is also possible that, in some cases, these Protocols will be less strict than the guidance, recommendations or requirements of applicable state and local health authorities (“Health Authority Guidance”). In these cases, teams and players must comply with the Health Authority Guidance. Put differently, these protocols are intended to supplement (and not replace) Health Authority Guidance.
Given the nature of the COVID-19 threat, no one approach is sufficient to mitigate the spread of the virus. While for example, regular testing of asymptomatic individuals will help, this single step is not foolproof. To this end, the USL’s Return-to-Play Protocols take a five-pronged approach to mitigate against the risk of COVID-19. These elements are:
Below, more detail is provided as to how each of these elements will be applied in practice.
In soccer, a certain degree of contact is inevitable. With that, except where impossible or highly impracticable, social distancing measures are required under the USL Return-to-Play Protocols. To give some examples of how this process will work in practice:
In order to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the USL Return to Play Protocols require that:
Based on our conversations with medical experts, rigorous screening for symptoms and immediate isolation of symptomatic cases is essential to mitigating the spread of the COVID-19. To that end:
Given the risks posed by COVID-19 and based on our conversations with medical experts, the USL has determined that is advisable to exceed state and local health department requirements and recommendations and institute a comprehensive testing regimen for all players, as well as for all other club personnel who may interact with players.
The USL is highly aware that these protocols are only valuable to the extent that all participants in our ecosystem fully understand and abide by them. To this end, all players and staff who may interact with players will receive comprehensive training on the protocols. In addition, each team will designate one or more Health Officers who will be responsible for providing follow-on education within their team and implementing the protocols.
In the unlikely event that teams cannot comply with any of the requirements (e.g., because of venue infrastructure), they are required to contact the league as soon as possible to devise an alternative, medically acceptable plan, which is subject to League Office approval.
While unlikely, it is also possible that, in some cases, these Protocols will be less strict than the guidance, recommendations or requirements of applicable state and local health authorities. In such cases, teams and players must comply first and foremost with their local and state health authority guidance. To be clear, these protocols are intended to supplement, not replace, health authority guidance.
These Protocols remain subject to change and, as the situation evolves and we learn more about the novel coronavirus, we may update these Protocols as appropriate.
From the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, the health and wellness of players, staff and supporters has been our top priority, and for more than three months we have been working every day to make sure that our return-to-play was done safely.
We also want to be as transparent as possible with you about the steps that are being taken. As such, we have from the beginning remained committed to publishing the full list of protocols. While everything to this point serves as a summary, we believe that seeing every step taken to provide for player, staff and supporter health is in the best interest of all involved.
Below are the policies and protocols in their entirety.