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Atlanta United president Darren Eales shares insight on MLS’ return after players begin workouts

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Eales referred to the Atlanta United’s opening fo individual outdoor training a “small glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jacob Gonzalez/Atlanta United

Atlanta United president Darren Eales shared his outlook for the return of MLS with local, national and international media on a conference call Thursday — one day after the club’s players returned to the training facility since the league’s stoppage of play.

And in classic Eales fashion, he dropped a quote made famous by the Chinese philospher Laozi.

“I think it was a Chinese proverb that said, you know, a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. I think yesterday was that first step,” said Eales. “It gave a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. I certainly know for our players, they were very excited to be there. You could see the smiles on their faces as they were turning up just to be able to get back to the training ground and to see some of their colleagues. Obviously they weren’t interacting on the pitch with them, but they were in the same location, so I think that was something that they were pleased about.”

Atlanta United and other clubs such as Inter Miami, Sporting KC, and Orlando City were the first to implement a series of strict protocols that allowed the players’ return, which went so far as preventing them to enter inside the building and included a temperature check and hygiene prior to beginning their individual sessions on the pitch.

But Eales said this move is just the first of a multi-phase program that will precede a resumption of some form of an MLS season. Eales told Aberdeen FC’s RedTV earlier this week that every idea is being considered to stitch together some form of a league competition for the 2020 season (which could even extend beyond the calendar year).

“I think there’s really three phrases to it as what we’re doing now,” said Eales. “[First] the individual player training, there’ll be an interim step of small group training sort of thing — four to five people training — perhaps even some passing drills. And then there’ll be that full training as we know it, and of course that’s going to be a slow progression and that’s going to be carefully monitored. Absolutely there’s going to need to be testing capabilities and things of that nature. So I think this is something that is going to take a series of steps.”

Eales said MLS has formed a sub-committee that is tasked with ensuring a regular supply of COVID-19 tests are available to ensure players continue to maintain good health once more rigorous and integrated forms of the sport resume. Eales said major sports leagues across the country are working in concert on this front.

“The way that the league is structured is there’s subcommittees dealing with all different topics that you obviously need to ladder up to a return to playing,” said Eales. “One of those key gateways is testing. That’s something that the league is looking at carefully. [MLS is] looking at that in collaboration with the other major leagues. And the sense is across all the leagues is that testing is going to become available. I mean, it’s, it’s ramping up as the days go by, but I don’t want to speak too much more than various committees are looking at that. There’s a general sense I think across the, the major leagues in America that testing will become readily available and clearly that will be part of whatever we need to take that next step.”

Before any next step can be taken, MLS will have to lift its blanket team training moratorium, which is currently in place through May 15. With individual training starting to ramp back up ever so slightly, could that date be moved up?

“That’s something that the league will look at,” said Eales. “I would think that probably we’ll be taking baby steps, so it may be that the fifteenth of May stays as that moratorium. But like anything, we’re in this fast moving world where, you know, three weeks ago it was looking fairly bleak. I think with this small glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel that we got back to individual training, it’s very difficult rash to make any assumptions for the future.”