The bubbles are succeeding, and so are the teams who’ve been able to adapt to them.
Tuesday evening, the Portland Timbers won the MLS is Back Tournament with a 2-1 victory over Orlando City. The Timbers team had entered the event ranked 14th out of 25 in title odds and last in their four-team group, but then again the chances of a championship match even being held weren’t much better a month ago, as teams from Nashville and Dallas were forced to withdraw following multiple positive COVID-19 tests.
However, the league’s safety protocol seemed to prevent team-to-team transmission and since July 14, MLS has administered 8,022 tests with zero confirmed positive results. The same success has largely held for similar bubbles set up by the NBA, NHL, NWSL and WNBA.
Portland advanced through group stages and knockout rounds unbeaten, likely in part due to its comfort over the course of a 40-day stay at Disney World’s version of ‘Hotel California.’ The Timbers did what they could to make players feel at home. Part of that involved keeping the team schedule on west coast time as much as possible, with daily training around 7 p.m. ET followed by a late dinner.
Another aspect of their daily routine was a phone alert around 10 a.m. each morning reminding players and staff members to fill out a COVID-19 symptom questionnaire that everyone on the team had seen plenty of times before.
Portland was one of several MLS Clubs using Kitman Labs’ performance intelligence platform before MLS adopted the technology as a league-wide tracking hub for COVID-19 symptom monitoring and testing result notifications according to multiple team sources. BioReference Laboratories, meanwhile, has been responsible for the physical testing process. Kitman Labs declined to comment on its deal with MLS. The league did not return a request for comment.
The idea of building COVID-19 monitoring into his app was actually a client’s idea first, Kitman Labs founder Stephen Smith told Sportico. “The longer this global pandemic has gone on, the more we realized the financial impact and burden this global sports shutdown is having,” he said. “If there is a way our technology can help people to keep their jobs and to help the athletes and staff that work around sports to remain healthy, that’s a huge positive for us.”
Founded in 2012, Kitman Labs has helped teams communicate with players, monitor injury risks and recovery, and interpret data coming from external hardware. With the underlying survey, alert, health data privacy and plug-in frameworks in place, the company, which has offices in Dublin, Silicon Valley, and the UK, just had to write specific questions related to potential COVID-19 symptoms and then work with partners to establish test integration and bespoke result notification pathways across organizations.
Smith said a majority of Kitman Labs’ existing clients opted to add the new features, while a number of new organizations came on board as well, even those outside of sports such as private high schools. In the UK, a single soccer team tracked 1,100 people, including family members, through the app.
Kitman Labs also secured additional funding this summer. New York-based investment firm Qvidtvm invested $6 million, joining previous backers like Blue Run Ventures, Sony and Pete Kight.
In Orlando, part of Timbers head athletic trainer Jon MacGregor’s morning routine included checking the team’s COVID-19 test results on his phone before double-checking them on his laptop and keeping tabs on players’ survey responses. “It was a smooth transition once we got to Orlando,” he said. “The guys already knew what to do, so that made life easier.”
His first week in Florida was filled with uncertainty as Nashville SC and FC Dallas departed following viral outbreaks. But he was able to settle in as the negative test results piled up.
Portland director of sports science Nick Milonas did what he could to help players handle the non-medical complications of bubble life. “Being away for 40 days from family… it plays a factor with how you approach training and matches and the overall daily routine,” Milonas said. “Those are stresses you have to account for.”
Much of that work was done during hard-to-quantify conversations, but staff members also dug into the data to see how players held up, monitoring their high-speed running rates, changes of direction, sprint distance and so on. With games played on a condensed timeline, trainers often limited players’ off-day work in response to those in-match numbers.
Now the Timbers return home. The chance to rejoin family also means the return of many of the protocols the team put in place for pre-tournament training, as well as new guidance given in the hopes that a healthy bubble stay doesn’t lead to complacency. For at least a week, MacGregor says, the anxiety will likely return.
MLS has decided to push its luck by resuming home matches, beginning without fans in attendance, one day after the MLS is Back Final. It is expected to continue using Kitman’s system for continued tracking. Dallas and Nashville will kick off the action. Once again, every team will be relying on new tech and accrued experience to adjust to another new normal.