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Sporting Diaries presented by Audi: Graham Zusi gives a behind-the-scenes update at the MLS is Back Tournament

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In the first edition of this behind-the-scenes series, Sporting defender Graham Zusi gives an update from Walt Disney World Resort, where the club is set to compete in the historic MLS is Back Tournament.

On the Fourth of July, one day before Sporting departed for Florida, members of the Kansas City Cauldron supporters group ventured to Compass Minerals National Performance Center to give players a socially distanced surprise sendoff.

We were at the training facility having our morning breakfast and someone told us to make our way to the front of the building. We walked outside and saw a very long line of cars full of people with signs and Sporting gear. It was a really cool moment and a great way to send us off.

It was quite unexpected because we didn’t know it was happening. But to see their faces and have some kind of interaction with those guys just meant so much to us. That’s what we’ve been working towards this whole year, really. To have some kind of interaction with them before this tournament felt really good. It was a little bit of a reminder of who we’re playing for. It was much appreciated and gave us quite a boost going to Florida.

The trip to Orlando was unique but went very smoothly from departure to arrival.

We obviously took a charter flight and it was a very different airport experience for us. We landed a different airport than Orlando International Airport, deplaned on the tarmac, and the buses were right there waiting for us. We literally got right off the airplane and right onto the buses that took us to the hotel.

Upon arrival, we were immediately tested. We didn’t need to grab our bags. We pretty much marched straight to the testing area, which was very organized. I give credit to the way testing is going down here. It’s a massive room with several medical professionals administering tests. There are no long lines with lots of people or anything like that. We’re all spread out at least 6-10 feet apart. There wasn’t much waiting to take our first test at all. From there we grabbed our bags and headed to our hotel rooms, where we stayed for the next 12 hours or so until we got test results the next morning. Luckily most of that 12-hour wait was spent sleeping.

Something that I was admittedly a little worried about coming down here was the testing process. We were worried that testing would take a long time, but I can say now that it’s the complete opposite case since we’ve been here. As soon as I enter the testing room, I’m in and out of there in five minutes. Each team has their own window to get in there, so you’re not crossing over with other teams. You have your designated time slot, you get it done, and you’re out very quickly. I’m glad they’re testing at the rate that they are—pretty much every other day.

The hotel has a variety of amenities for players to enjoy.

Our team has our own wing of the hotel on our own floor. We have our own meal rooms, too. The meals are served to us behind protective glass by people wearing PPE. You move down the meal line, point to what you’d like on your plate and they serve it to you.

Disney does their pools right, that’s for sure. There are at least four pools on the hotel campus here. There’s so much space on these campuses that you can find your own indoor or outdoor space if you want to get away from everyone. Each team also has its own lounge area for the down time that we have. In those lounges there are game rooms with arcade and video games, ping pong tables and pool tables.

I haven’t played a game of ping pong yet, but I’m planning on getting at least a few games in very soon. I’ve been challenged a couple of times, so now I’m just trying to find the right time to get on it. Looking forward to keeping my title as best ping pong player on the team.

Outside of matches, training, weight lifting and treatment, players have plenty of free time.

Since the tournament started, I’ve watched all of the games so far. There’s a decent amount of soccer going on worldwide as well. English Premier League games are being broadcast daily, which has been nice. When I’m not watching soccer, I’m doing a lot of reading. I brought a few books down here that I’ve started to get into, both of which are about the current climate that we’re dealing with in our country. One is called “So You Want to Talk About Race,” and the other is called “White Fragility,” which talks about why it may be hard for white people to talk about race in this country. I’m trying to do my part and educate myself on what certain people in this country have gone through for so long.

The Black Players for Change demonstration before the MLS is Back Tournament opener on July 8 inspired players, coaches and fans alike.

I thought it was extremely powerful. Those guys did such a great job at organizing a powerful gesture that so many people will have the opportunity to see. With these games being broadcast on huge stations like ESPN and FOX, hopefully we’re getting huge audiences as well. Their demonstration gave me chills. It made me proud of the black players in this league and their leadership to find actual change. And I truly believe that change is coming. I think we’ve reached a tipping point in this country, and the leadership that we have on this team and throughout MLS is special. I think a lot of ears and minds are starting to open, and I think that’s a very good thing.

The hotel’s performance center has a unique but effective setup.

The performance center is quite different from a normal hotel gym. It’s actually a pretty cool setup. In these massive ballrooms that the hotel has, they’ve basically sectioned off several different makeshift gyms. It’s like they shipped in a gym in a box, kind of like a shipping container of gym equipment. Each gym is shared by maybe three teams, and between each use, they are completely sanitized and sprayed down. It’s a really great system that they have, and this was all done for this tournament alone. We have literally everything we could want in a gym, from bikes to complete weight sets. Everything we could ask for, they have. I am very satisfied with the gym setup we have.

Sporting has become comfortable with the training routine and has acclimated well to the challenging weather conditions in Orlando.

The training fields are a quick bus ride from the hotel, maybe 5-10 minutes. We all meet down in the lobby, walk up to the bus together and head to the fields. Once we get there, we head to our own individual fields, do our training, and then it’s the same thing going back.

I think the Kansas City weather has helped us acclimate pretty well to what we’re experience in Orlando from a weather perspective. We all know how hot and humid Kansas City can get in the summer, and we were definitely experiencing that in the few weeks leading up to this tournament. I was happy that we were getting a glimpse of it. Not a lot of teams in this league will experience that kind of weather before games start down here. It might give us a slight edge when it comes to game time.

Sporting players went on a golf outing Tuesday in Disney World. Some played well, others not so much.

Unfortunately we only got a few holes in because of the customary monsoon that happens in Florida around 1 p.m. every single day. We were divided into small groups to promote as much social distancing as possible, so I didn’t get to see a whole lot of the guys play. I can only speak for my group, which was me, (Matt) Besler and Gerso (Fernandes). When we hit the range warming up for our round, I couldn’t hit anything. I was horrendous. I had the full yips it seemed like. But once I got on the course, it was kind of a different story. I’d say Besler off the tee was the best by far. I’d say my approach game was kind of on point.

Gerso was kind of an all-around guy. I was surprised by Gerso’s game. Some of these foreign guys have never picked up a golf club before in their lives. I was pretty impressed with Gerso’s swing. Just like his goal celebration, it was pretty smooth. He may not have hit the best shots, but you could tell that he was so close to being right on the money. Maybe it was just a bad day for him, but you could tell he’s got what it takes.

Sporting has dined at multiple hotel restaurants for dinner.

A few nights a week, we’re able to have dinner at the hotel’s restaurant locations. We’ve been able to choose so far. On Tuesday we went to Shula’s Steakhouse and on Wednesday we went to an Italian place called Il Mulino. Both places had a prefixed menu. We started with salads and appetizers, had a few options for the entrée, and then we had a little dessert. At Shula’s I got a filet as my main, which was really good. At Il Mulino, I got a gnocchi Bolognese that was pretty delicious, too.

After a four-month gap between competitive matches, Sporting can’t wait to return to the field Sunday to face Minnesota United FC.

This week at training, there’s been a little more energy and excitement. It has been a long four months of lead-up. What we’ve done in Kansas City was basically a drawn-out preseason. This tournament couldn’t have come at a better time for us, just in terms of needing and wanting to get back out on the field for a competitive match. I think you could see during our first training session on Monday night that we were ready to go. The excitement and energy levels were ramped up even more.

You can tell the guys are itching to get back on the field, and we’ve been sharp in training. This is a great opportunity to get some more points on the board. It’s a unique competition because we’re playing for points in the regular season but also for a trophy and a Champions League spot. We’re kind of double-dipping here, so that should give us even more motivation to get the wins.