When the Halifax Wanderers defeated Winnipeg’s Valour FC last week, they celebrated in the way most young, single, professional athletes do during a pandemic – immediately retreated to their hotel and ordered in some pizza.
In the era of COVID-19, there are no nights out on the town for players in the upstart Canadian Premier League, the national soccer circuit that has had to reinvent itself in its sophomore season as a TV-only product playing inside a bubble on Prince Edward Island. For players, that’s meant an endless cycle of shuttling to and from their downtown Charlottetown hotel to the pitch at the University of Prince Edward Island.
There are no detours, no fans and no leaving the hotel – which has been surrounded with barricades and security staff to keep players from sneaking off the property.
“It does feel like a bit of a prison sometimes,” quipped Halifax defender Alex De Carolis, who scored the first goal in the win over Winnipeg. “I’ve never been to Charlottetown, but it looks beautiful on the drive to and from practice.”
Halifax, with one of the CPL’s best defences, advanced to the second round of the tournament-style season – dubbed the Island Games – with a 2-0 defeat of Atlético Ottawa on Sunday. They join Pacific FC, Forge FC and Cavalry FC in a four-team round-robin that begins Wednesday afternoon. The top two teams after that will then advance to the championship final, to be played on September 19.
For the Wanderers, who regularly played in front of sold-out, singing crowds of more than 6,000 in Halifax last season, it’s been strange adjusting to playing in front of no one, save for a few dozen minor soccer players allowed in to watch, or a few spectators peering through the fence.
“It’s been hard. You get a boost from that crowd, and now you feel like you’re playing in front of nobody," said Andre Rampersad, the team’s Trinidadian captain.
But the players are also quick to say if it was a choice between playing inside a tightly controlled quarantine bubble, or sitting out for a season, they’ll gladly be here. Instead of the roar of the crowd, they talk to fans on social media, and are getting their games streamed into markets the CPL couldn’t reach last year, including India, Pakistan, sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Europe.
“Eventually, all the other stuff goes away, and you forget that you’ve been stuck inside a hotel for the last six weeks, not really doing anything," Rampersad said. “For us, playing is a stress reliever. Once you’re playing, your mind gets off the bubble.”
They’re been together as a team since March, waiting for the season to start, so they’re just happy to be playing real games in 2020, he said. The league’s Saturday games are also being broadcast on CBC, opening up new domestic TV audiences for the young league trying to grow its profile.
Sequestering all teams inside the Delta Prince Edward, with its views of Charlottetown’s scenic waterfront, was a condition of bringing the league to PEI this season. Each team was given a conference room that was converted into a clubhouse, complete with an eating area, Ping-Pong tables and video game consoles.
Players, who get regular COVID-19 tests, have to watch people going to downtown restaurants, cafés and bars, or otherwise exploring the island capital, knowing they can’t join them.
“The guys have been great about this and I know this isn’t easy on them,” CPL commissioner David Clanachan said.
“We knew we’d have a lot of people looking at us under a microscope, convincing them we could do this properly. … We also knew we couldn’t go dark, and lose that momentum of what we’ve already built here. It’s too easy in this day and age to disappear from people’s minds.”
The league spent months convincing the provincial government they could operate safely, without jeopardizing public health by bringing in more than 300 players and staff players, he said. So far, it’s been successful.
The pandemic has delayed the eight-team league’s expansion plans, but the commissioner is optimistic more Canadian franchises can be added for 2022. In the meantime, it continues to grow its name as a showcase league for young soccer talent hoping to make the leap to bigger MLS and European teams.
For players, the Island Games have been a test of team chemistry, in a season unlike any other. For the Wanderers, being stuck together for so long has also forged a unique bond as they eye a deep run in the CPL playoffs, and the chance to fight for a championship and a 2021 CONCACAF League berth.
“It’s huge for a tournament like this. You have to be able to get along, because you’re with them 24/7,” De Carolis said. “We’re pretty much family now.”