MLS: Lessons must be learned from ‘awkward’ Weston McKennie

Weston McKennie discussed the ‘awkward’ return to Bundesliga play at the weekend. As MLS prepares for its return, lessons must be learned.

This weekend, we got our first look at elite-level football behind-closed-doors. The Bundesliga was the first major European league to return to play following the coronavirus-enforced suspension. The first weekend of action was largely successful. While the matches were a little strange to watch, they were entertaining, no players have yet tested positive for COVID-19, while the viewing figures were strong.

The Bundesliga is the control league for every other sports league in the world. They are the first major operation to return, and every league will have their eyes firmly set on their success or failures. And there are lots of lessons to learn. Major League Soccer should be paying attention.

The people most impacted by the change in play is the players. They are self-quarantining, tested regularly, have to play in empty stadiums, and must deal with entirely different routines for playing competitive matches.

This week, Weston McKennie, who started for Schalke in their 4-0 defeat to Borussia Dortmund, recalled the experience.

“It was awkward,” McKennie told Taylor Twellman and ESPN FC on Monday when asked about what it was to play to return to play. “It felt like soccer but it didn’t feel like soccer at the same time. No fans. Not really an atmosphere.”

From what he said, and from the other experiences of the players, MLS must learn lessons. For instance, McKennie talks about the need for players to self-motivate.

“You have to really depend on your self-motivation and your self-drive to really give your 100 percent in the game,” he said. “Obviously we took a big L this past weekend in the Revierderby. In that game, you could really tell that we’ve been out of it for quite a long time.”

For coaches, then, they will have to ensure that their players are fully sharp and motivated upon their return. The natural passion of matches will be subdued due to the absence of supporters. This will change how the game is played.

McKennie also revealed that he and his teammates had “a week, a week and a half” of full-contact training before their first match. After two months without a match, that is not very much. The players are not fully match-sharp, as McKennie and his teammates experienced in the worst possible circumstances. The cohesiveness of a team that is normal at this stage in a season is difficult to find. You cannot simply switch it on and off.

Should MLS extend the weeks of training before matches return, then? Or are coaches simply told this is the timeframe they have to work with and it is up to them to make sure that their players are ready?

McKennie also touched on the routine for the players and how many things are different. “The only thing right now that makes it feel like a pandemic is all the precautions for playing again,” he later said. “Going into the game was awkward. Sitting on the bench wearing masks. Go warm-up at different times. Going out for warm-ups with no fans. You hear every voice and echo in the stadium. You hear a ball get kicked, you hear a ball drop to the ground. You hear everything.”

How will the players react to this new way of playing? Those who relish the atmosphere might struggle, for instance. Those who have to deal with nerves might flourish in a less-pressured environment.

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Quite how MLS, the coaches, the players, and the teams analyse what takes place in the Bundesliga over the coming weeks remains to be seen. But make no mistake, there are lessons to be learned. And those that learn the right ones and apply them will be best prepared for this unprecedented way of playing football.

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