New Mexico United is another step closer to its 2020 season reboot despite the state this week tightening COVID-19 restrictions for things like mandatory travel quarantine periods, physical activities in groups of more than four people and requiring masks in public and when you work.
Nevertheless, most of the hurdles in front of the state’s second-year professional soccer team seem to be cleared for a return to the field on July 11 in Colorado Springs – the first match in a revamped 15-game schedule the United Soccer League Championship division unveiled on Thursday.
United plays its first three matches on the road – July 11 at Colorado Springs and July 15 and 24 at El Paso – before its first home match July 29 against Salt Lake City’s Real Monarchs. That will be at the University of New Mexico soccer complex and not at Isotopes Park, its first-year home.
So, how can United practice and play soccer games – the state’s current health order prohibits sports activities of groups larger than four – and travel out of state and return without mandatory 14-day quarantine periods unless it violates the state health restrictions re-emphasized during a stern Wednesday news conference with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham?
Basically, United is unique. But the team is getting no special treatment, according to the Governor’s Office.
“As much as we’d love to make special accommodations, that’s not something the state has done or plans to do – the state has aimed to be fair in all of the public health requirements and advisories, and applying the same rules to everyone is a big part of that,” Nora Meyers Sackett, a Grisham spokeswoman wrote in an email responding to Journal questions.
She noted that there has been communication between the Governor’s Office and Peter Trevisani, the team’s majority owner who is also on the governor’s Economic Recovery Council. He has been a part of not only discussions but also making recommendations to the state for different phases of reopening and health restriction guidelines.
Trevisani told the Journal last month he felt no conflict of interest being on the Economic Recovery Council while also having such a vested interest in having his team be allowed to resume training and playing.
But as sports teams of all ages around the state are growing increasingly frustrated with state restrictions preventing group workouts of more than four at a time, United can practice again as a full team, Trevisani said in a Journal interview on Thursday, because it isn’t a recreational team. And since it is essentially already in a season-long quarantine as part of the USL’s 57-page return-to-play protocol that has players and coaches tested for COVID-19 weekly and required to stay together as a team at most times, the team shouldn’t have problems playing over the next month.
“Our team is a company,” Trevisani explained, well aware some people might not like hearing that United is being allowed back to practice. “It’s an organization, we have employees, just like every other company. And we need to make sure that with our team, we’re underneath the 25% restriction when we’re in a close space. We’re not mass gathering. We’re not meeting in a park and gathering. It’s not a private meeting, either.
“Our employees are returning to work under the protocols that have been outlined for COVID safe practices. And part of what our employees do is, they exercise. They train for soccer. And so we’ve talked to the governor’s office about that, and they understand what we’re doing there. And while there may not be another business in New Mexico that operates the way, United does. It is a business and we’re going to follow those guidelines in our training facility, in our office space and our retail space.”
As employees getting back to work, the requirement for them to wear masks while practicing or playing isn’t in place as, according to Sackett, that would fall under the exercise exemption in the state’s public health order.
“Regardless, they must of course wear masks at any other time in the presence of others,” she said.
As for an out-of-state team traveling into New Mexico on July 29 and whether it has to face a quarantine restriction, both Trevisani and Sackett had no answers other than the problem will be addressed more concretely as the date approaches.
“We know their first scheduled home game is not till later this month and we’re optimistic we’ll be in a place as a state where we can permit spectator-less sports at that point in time,” Sackett said.
A NEW HOME, FOR NOW: United’s home game on July 29 will be without fans in attendance and relocated south across Avenida Cesar Chavez to the University of New Mexico soccer complex.
United normally sub-leases at the city-owned Isotopes Park from Albuquerque’s Triple-A baseball team. While the minor league season this week was officially axed, the Colorado Rockies – the major league parent club of the Isotopes – will have a team of players using Isotopes Park all summer to stay ready in case of injuries to the big league club as the majors work to return to play this month, too.
“We wish (Trevisani) and his group nothing but success in launching their season,” Isotopes Vice President and General Manager John Traub said in a statement sent by United. “There have been such an unusual set of variables at play and the collaboration to come to this decision has been impressive. Let’s all hope and pray the virus allows all the planning to come to fruition.”
A signed contract between United and UNM was not available upon request from the Journal on Thursday. United paid the Isotopes $13,000 plus expenses for every home match last season.
UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez, in the statement sent by United, stated, “During this pandemic we all have to do more. The opportunity to provide our facility to New Mexico United is another example of our continued partnership with our community.”
Both sides acknowledge if fan-in-the-stands restrictions are relaxed at some point, a move to Dreamstyle Stadium could happen – even though the playing surface is field turf, which is usually not allowed for USL matches but may be for this unique season.
All home and road matches are expected to be streamed online on ESPN-plus and heard in the Albuquerque market on 101.7 FM.