The U.S. Soccer Federation on Thursday announced “Play On,” a five-phase return-to-play protocol for organized soccer in the U.S. as players attempt to resume normal training and playing conditions during the ongoing fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic.
U.S. Soccer’s goal, according to chief medical officer George Chiampas, is to provide guidelines and information for youth soccer players, coaches, parents, administrators and referees as they navigate uncharted waters. The federation is asking that all parties involved in grassroots soccer “take the PLAY ON Pledge… to be honest in their self-evaluation and to be responsible to themselves, their families and their communities.”
Guidelines issued by U.S. Soccer “are intended for use WHEN AND IF your local authorities have deemed it safe to return to the practice field,” Chiampas emphasized in a letter released Thursday.
“Phase 0” is the “stay and shelter” phase, according to U.S. Soccer. Phase 1 is individual and group training, which the federation recommends last 4-6 weeks. Group training is suggested to consist of a maximum of nine players and one coach, while maintaining social distancing. Full team training would follow in Phase 2, allowing for at least three weeks before competition for COVID-19 tracking purposes.
On a call with reporters on Thursday, Dr. Chiampas acknowledged that getting to Phase 4, even in daily life, could require treatment or a vaccine, which could be anywhere from nine to 18 months. Phase 3 would still allow for competition, just with modifications based on up-to-date CDC recommendations (the wearing of masks, for example).
However, a major issue in getting back to regular competition is travel. Dr. Chiampas said recent studies have shown that the wearing of masks, combined with social distancing and other best practices, significantly reduce the transmission of COVID-19. From club soccer right up to a youth national team level, that will require rethinking regular operations. It might mean needing two buses for transportation to maintain distancing, or larger banquet halls for spaced-out team meetings, he said.
“We’ll look at a lot of those things and determine how we can still have national team camps,” he said. “Will it look different? Absolutely, it’ll be different. But I think players, each and every one of us is going to become a little bit more used to this as time goes by.
Dr. Chiampas said that duration of time is a big factor in analyzing social distancing, which is to soccer’s advantage as opposed to some other sports.
“When we look at the sport of soccer, if there are brief elements — seconds or a few seconds — where social distancing is broken to be able to play the sport, those are fairly low-risk in an asymptomatic population where we’ve put all these mitigation strategies,” he said.
Some suggested practices for Phase 1 training include players packing two water bottles and labeling them with their name, arriving to the training facility fully dressed and wearing a mask, and daily temperature checks. Resources include a hygiene cheat sheet.
The federation also provided some sample training ideas for maintaining social distancing during Phase 1: