MLS is Back... eventually: How FC Dallas and Nashville SC prepared for the rest of the 2020 season

When FC Dallas finally got back on the training ground in Frisco, Texas -- after a disastrous trip to Orlando, Florida, that resulted in the club being withdrawn from the MLS is Back Tournament amid a cluster of positive COVID-19 tests, a two-week quarantine and two days off to get a mental break once they returned to Dallas -- head coach Luchi Gonzalez had a simple message for his players: Enjoy.

In those first two days of training, "there were no real tactical or technical objectives, other than just play and fall in love with the game again," he said during an interview over Zoom.

"We have to reflect as human beings: What we do? What is our purpose, whether that's our relationships, our career, a hobby? Why do we play? Do we play because we get paid, or do we play because we love the game? Why do we have a style of play? Because coach says so, or because we understand how it can help us perform and achieve our goals, and do it in a creative way and in a way that we can control or dominate a game the best we can?

"Having that being tested, being taken away, and now giving some freedom and autonomy to get it back with some simple things -- playing, and finding the joy in it -- I think has been a really positive experience for the group."

- Play Soccer Playoff Pick 'Em through the MLS knockout rounds
- Stream MLS is Back on ESPN networks, App | FC Daily on ESPN+
- MLS is Back schedule, TV info: What you need to know

Gonzalez wasn't eager to talk about the immediate aftermath of being removed from the tournament in Orlando: the days inside, allowed to get out of the hotel room for only a short period; the stressful trip home; the nerves; the being away from his family.

Neither was Tanner Tessmann, FC Dallas' 18-year-old midfielder in the thick of what will almost certainly be the strangest season of his professional career. Suffice it to say those two days of rest and relaxation after returning to Dallas followed by two days of "fun" training were essential in refocusing the team.

"Guys were just really eager to get back to the field and do what we love. There was a lot of energy," he said. "There wasn't as much pressure to win games. Coaches with smiles. Nobody really getting on you as much, demanding things. If you make a mistake, it was all right and we move forward."

It was tough for Tessmann & Co. to get the legs back after a period of inaction, but spirits were high. Even goalkeepers got into the action, protecting smaller goals, working on their foot skills, moving the ball around. This was schoolyard soccer: trying things, beating defenders with aplomb, not worrying if you failed. A professional soccer environment, yes, but not your typical, straitlaced, professional soccer training session.

Nashville SC also missed MLS is Back because of COVID-19 infections, forced back to their home market for quarantine. They arrived at the tournament later than they planned because of a false positive test, then were forced to withdraw and return home a few days later. Head coach Gary Smith spent four or five days more or less alone in a guest bedroom. On the first Monday, when the team could finally train safely at their facility, Smith's only goal was to "get the lads on an even keel," he said.

"There were a lot of things that we were disappointed about, dejected about, frustrated about, but somehow we needed to move forward. We had a couple of days where training wasn't overly strenuous, and we had a couple of meetings to make sure everyone was feeling and thinking in the same way."

It wasn't the prettiest training, nor was it the sharpest, but they were playing soccer, and that was enough.

"Everyone was happy to have the boots on out on the field in the training facility," defender Daniel Lovitz said. "We were pretty much locked within our rooms for an extended period of time, to get back out on the field after the quarantine period, that was our first real step back to normal or this form of normal that we've been dealing with this whole year. That was important."

Eventually, of course, focus had to turn to the rest of the season. This week, FCD and Nashville will play a home-and-home series as Major League Soccer nears its post-Orlando return, with games on Wednesday (8.30 p.m., stream live in U.S. on ESPN+) and Sunday (8.30 p.m., stream live in U.S. on ESPN+). Gonzalez said he continues to implement his ambitious plans for FC Dallas, slightly delayed by the Orlando fiasco, but focused on mastering a game model and the team culture.

All the players who tested positive in Orlando have recovered -- Gonzalez wouldn't say if additional players tested positive after the team returned to Dallas, although everyone on the first team is being tested every other day. The first team, the second team and the academy all have different testing bubbles, however, which makes getting second team and academy players into first-team training nearly impossible. This new reality is especially tough for a team such as FCD, where there has traditionally been a fluid pipeline between the teams, with academy players frequently training with the first team. For the time being, however, that's no longer an option.

Smith, speaking after a Nashville training interrupted by an unseasonable downpour -- "The players loved it because the temperature dropped, but we ended up looking a little bit worse for wear." -- noted an improving quality of touch and mental focus as the team put Orlando further in the rear view. "Mentally, there's a greater buy-in to how they are working," he said. "The tournament in Orlando stirs up emotions of not being involved, given all the hard work the boys put in."

That's not to say the coaches and the players aren't paying attention to the tournament they missed. From the "brutal" 9 a.m. games to staying up late for the nighttime affairs, it's been a balance of watching the games to get a sense of how teams are playing, while also staying protected from the pain of not being there.

"It hurts to watch," Gonzalez said. "That's why I have to limit my viewership. My adrenaline gets going. My wife knows when it's that time of the day in the evening. She'll let me have my private moment. You naturally envision yourself having that opportunity. How do you coach in that moment? What do you tell the players with and without the ball? I try to visualize that moment. But you have to get out of that moment, too. If not, I'll go crazy."

Tessmann has been watching, too, attempting to get a sense of other teams from afar. Initially, it hurt. Badly.

"Watching, especially, those first couple games in group stage when we were headed home was tough to see our own league playing without us and us not being able to be a part of it," he said. But he has grown used to the daily craziness of MLS is Back, seeing an unpredictable final four advance, a crash course in the surprising results that define MLS. He's also using the time to develop individual skills -- free kicks, driven long balls, first touch, playing where he faces -- during the quarantine period. Missing out on the chance to compete in Orlando is always in the back of the players' minds, a motivating factor for the rest of the season.

"Especially at the end of training, when we have our team talks, guys are bringing it up," he said. "Everyone knows that we've missed out on opportunities, but there's nothing we can do about it. We didn't get to showcase down in Orlando, but there's still a season coming."

For Dallas and Nashville, the 2020 season has been more like a series of preseasons. There was the initial one in the winter, followed by two league games, then the shutdown and preparation for Orlando, then another shutdown, quarantine and preparation for a restart they weren't sure was coming. Playing against their own teammates is getting old.

"It's a lot of pent-up energy, frustration and excitement more than anything," Lovitz said. "It'll be an amazing opportunity to kick people other than each other."