Altitude's Richard Fleming walks you through a day in the life at Rapids' preseason in Tucson, Arizona.
The bedside alarm sounds and players are rolling out of their beds in time for breakfast. Today is also a testing day. The walk from room to dining hall takes you outside and is long enough to have the morning Arizona chill force you to pull the jacket a little tighter.
Every member of the preseason travel party has a room to themselves. Covid protocol means you are not allowed in the rooms of others. Anywhere on hotel property outside of your room you have to be wearing a mask, aside from mealtimes and when the players have team pool sessions.
Testing is underway for all players and staff. Standing in line, the routine is by now familiar. You give your name to the man behind the desk, take the form, and then shuffle across to the end of the table where another confirms your details. He then asks you to take a seat and then prods up the nose, bags it all up and sends you on your way.
Being five days in, breakfast is familiar fare: potatoes, turkey bacon, sausage, waffles, oatmeal, fruit, pancakes, bagels, omelet, as well as water, milk, fruit juices, coffee, and tea. Seating is limited to five to a table, to allow for social distancing.
The kit for the day is set aside on a nearby table for players to retrieve before heading from the dining room. Unlike previous days, today they have the morning to themselves before an afternoon scrimmage.
Preseason interviews are taking place today. First up is Philip Mayaka, the Rapids’ SuperDraft pick out of Clemson. His story is one of drive, focus, and determination, of a young kid who dreams of being a professional soccer player, leaving behind all that he knows in moving from Kenya to the United States, alone, and at only 16 years old.
Other interviews follow over the next three hours, including William Yarbrough, Younes Namli, Kellyn Acosta, and Andre Shinyashiki. Watch out for these over the course of the season.
The interviews are taking place on the ground floor of the main building of the resort, alongside the treatment room, and directly beneath the dining hall. The club, to maintain a safe distance, has a complete wing of the resort, to prevent any interaction with members of the public.
Lunch is served. Players converge once again on the dining hall. The morning may have been spent in their rooms, some may have spent the morning at the driving range, others stretched their legs with a walk, or were receiving treatment.
There are seven stations in the dining hall which, when the Rapids are not in town, is probably used as a conference room. The first station is hot food – today we have pasta (there’s a gluten free option as well), and the chef offers the additional choice of mushrooms, garlic, greens, chicken, and sun-dried tomatoes.
At the end of the first station there is always a soup on offer as well.
Station two is omelets, station three is the salad bar, station four is fruit, station five is breads and bagels, six is water, milk, and juices, while station seven is hot drinks.
There is one more interview before all depart for the training facility, with midfielder Collen Warner offering up his thoughts on the upcoming season, as well as insight into his path from Denver East High School to MLS.
Another Covid protocol in place involves the vehicles. Staff and players are assigned a vehicle, and that is theirs for the five weeks of preseason. Vans and SUVs pull out of the resort for the 25-minute drive to the Kino Sports Complex, the home of FC Tucson, and the first intra-squad scrimmage of the trip.
The sun is shining but it’s a little windy. The Rapids occupy three fields. Goalkeepers are set up on one, warming up with assistant and goalkeeper coach Chris Sharpe. In between, there is a pop-up tent with a treatment table. Mats, rollers, bands, cleats, and pinnies are set to one side. The players chat amongst themselves, in small groups, while readying themselves for stretching and warm-ups.
Pre-scrimmage warm-ups begin with a huddle, before players then join strength and conditioning coach, Peter Gorka, for back and forth jogs across two of the pitches. It’s not unusual to see assistant coaches Wolde Harris and Neil Emblen tag on the end of this part of warm-ups, eager to give the players a run for their money.
With that, they then break off into groups of six or seven for a one-touch drill which involves two players in the middle and the rest around the outside seeking to retain possession. Laughter and banter can be heard, as team chemistry builds.
The squad splits into two. One side wears orange pinnies, and other is dressed in onyx. The wind is picking up now as kickoff approaches, but the sun still shines.
And we’re underway!
Chris Sharpe is referee. On one bench sits head coach Robin Fraser and Emblen. The other is occupied by Harris and assistant coach Chris Little. The match consists of two 30-minute halves. The onyx team takes a first half lead, through an effort from Nicolas Mezquida and Shinyashiki, but the orange XI apply pressure, forcing several corner kicks.
There are lots of familiar faces on display, littered with new homegrowns and the MLS veteran Michael Barrios. Barrios is busy down the flank, dodging, darting, and deceiving. Yaya Toure bustles and bundles his way through, not standing on ceremony with his more senior colleagues. Oliver Larraz looks composed in midfield, and Darren Yapi held his own against Lalas Abubakar, dropping a shoulder and turning his man on one occasion.
Mezquida’s goal remained the difference between the two teams. As players warmed down, Fraser gave an interview in which he was quietly satisfied with progress made at the end of the first week in Tucson.
Back to the vehicles, and back to base for staff and players. Masks back on for everyone.
Showers can wait, as it’s straight to a gym session on the team’s return. The grind is real.
From the gym, the players head to the dining hall for dinner. Couscous with red peppers is an unfamiliar sight, alongside chicken, steak, pasta, soup, salad, fruit, and breads.
At the end of dinner, there is little hanging around. The masks go back on. Players and staff head their separate ways, wandering back to their individual rooms, more than 12 hours since the bedside alarms rang out.
It’s preseason, but it’s not the norm. Social distancing, fist-bumps over handshakes, testing every other day, and a strict mask-wearing policy is what is needed, expected, and accepted. The entire travel party is acutely aware of their individual and collective responsibilities as they work toward the new season.
Four more weeks of preseason remain, but the early signs are very good …