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Sporting Diaries presented by Audi: Team administrator Jon Farrell shares insight on MLS is Back Tournament

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In the second edition of this behind-the-scenes series, Sporting KC Director of Team Administration Jon Farrell provides a unique perspective of the historic MLS is Back Tournament in Walt Disney World.

Players play, coaches coach, equipment managers focus on equipment and trainers focus on the athletic and medical side. That’s not to mention nutritionists, performance coaches and other staff members. The team administrators are the ones who cover all of the loose ends.

The main areas we focus on are travel arrangements, scheduling, internal communications and budgeting—the basic, everyday operations for the team. Everything that needs coordinating, oversight and logistical planning will fall into our realm. Our goal is to make sure everything is flowing seamlessly so that the players, coaches and anyone else involved in the team has a platform to excel and to have a great experience.

When plans were finalized for the MLS is Back Tournament, team administrators across the league were faced with a unique challenge. This event was basically a preseason times two with detailed protocols each club had to follow.

You immediately start thinking about hotel arrangements, facilities, shipping items, how to schedule training, procedures and protocols around COVID-19, and also the players’ mental health, especially during these times. One thing MLS should be commended on is the fact that they have put together a World Cup-style tournament not with four years of preparation, but with mere months of planning, if that. When we got down here to Florida, we were very impressed with the setup—the hotel, the meals, the training facility, the match setup. It’s a challenge because all 24 clubs are in one space, so no team has its exact preferences, but the league has done a great job in the limited timeframe they’ve had to put this event together. On the backside, it’s been a very well-run tournament.

Before we traveled to Florida, a lot of my focus centered around scheduling each day with trainings, matches and meals, making sure we were covered from an equipment perspective, and making sure we were addressing the needs of the players and coaches to help put their minds at ease. For example, one of the first tasks was getting our shipping container full of training equipment down to the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. A lot of this preparation was similar to the steps we take leading up to each preseason, so we had a good idea on a plan of action.

All of the team administrators across the league had frequent calls in the lead-up to the tournament discussing what we’d like to see, and a lot of that has become a reality. Hotel meals, trainings, weight sessions and matchdays have been great.

No one day is the exact same for a team administrator, but every day requires extreme attention to detail.

I have a 5:45 a.m. wakeup call and I’m immediately checking my phone and email to make sure nothing unexpected has popped up. The night before, we’re confirming buses to and from training, confirming meals throughout the day, making sure we have equipment at training, taking care of the COVID-19 testing schedule, coordinating with the sports performance staff to make sure we’re good to go in the weight room and the pools. We head to the meal room to make sure breakfast is ready by 6 a.m., then we’re downstairs by 6:45 for testing. At 7:30, we jump on a bus and head to training. While the team is practicing on the field, I use that time to get onto the computer and start preparing for the next steps.

After training, we return to the hotel for a late brunch. After a later lunch, we get on a call with other league administrators at 1:30 to go over any big-picture issues so that we can improve our daily experiences as we go on. Throughout the afternoon, we’re always available for players so that if they have a request, we’re able to take care of it right away. Some of the most common questions are “When is housekeeping coming?” or “What training field are we on?” or “When is the next meal?” But sometimes they need assistance with other things like paperwork or travel arrangements.

Sometimes we have a team meeting at 6:45 p.m. where Peter Vermes speaks with players in one of our meeting spaces before dinner. By the evening, it’s nice to take a breather and watch some MLS games. The group stage has 16 straight days of matches, so there’s plenty of soccer on TV. We also take that time to communicate to the players what the next day looks like from a schedule perspective. It’s important for them to be able to plan out their next day without looking for all of the information.

For team administrators, clear communication and the ability to snuff out problems before they become issues is key.

In our world as team administrators, we’re always trying to help others be fully prepared. For that reason, we always have to be a few steps ahead. The players and coaches are always focused on the next game or the next training. We’re thinking about what next week and next month is going to look like. When players and coaches come to us, ideally we’ve already thought through a situation and even followed through with detailed plans.

Things can obviously change fast, so that’s where our ability to react and become flexible comes in. When unexpected things do come up, we have to be able to anticipate it and fix it. One of our biggest goals is to prevent anything that might negatively affect the team, whether it’s a late meal or a late flight. The challenge is to be so many steps ahead that you can solve a problem before it becomes an issue.

As an example, we recently had a dinner reservation at one of the hotel restaurants. However, a conflict caused our training session to be moved from the morning to the evening during the same time as our dinner reservation. Our players and staff obviously need dinner to fuel for recovery and performance. With our options limited to those within the bubble, we adapted by switching to hotel delivery instead of sit-down service. Prior to training, we collected individual meal orders for all members of our traveling delegation and liaised with restaurant managers to deliver the food to our floor after training.

The move from morning to evening training affected other aspects of our day, as well. In a short space of time, we re-arranged bus transfers, training field assignments and weight room times. As much as we want Plan A to work, in our role, we always need a plan B in our back pocket.

Free time means family time and exercising.

At night I enjoy talking with family back at home, especially FaceTiming my wife and 20-month-old boy back in Kansas City. My other free-time activity is running and working out. Running here in the Florida heat and humidity is a challenge, but we also have access to a few peloton bikes here at the hotel. That’s most definitely been a nice stress relief.

My wife happens to be eight and a half months pregnant and has a due date of Aug. 5. The timing of the tournament for me personally wasn’t ideal. If we were to go all the way to the tournament final, which is certainly what we plan to do, that game would be Aug. 11. As everyone knows, the baby will come when the baby is ready. It’s definitely been an interesting time, but the excitement the players and my family have for me and my wife has been great.

We’ve also brought another team administrator along for the trip, Katie Eichman. She has lots of experience as the Sporting KC Academy team administrator, and she’s been a huge help picking up things really fast. If the time comes where I have to leave the bubble and head home for the birth of our second son, we’ll be in a good spot. I feel thankful for the situation we’re in, and hopefully I’ll be watching Sporting in the semifinal or final when the baby comes.

Everything about the MLS is Back Tournament is unique and unprecedented. No one has ever been through something like this before, which makes it such a special experience.

The biggest challenge is the fact that 24 teams are all at one hotel. We’re all training at the same complex and we’re all working with the same contacts at MLS. If we’re in Kansas City at our training facility, our stadium, or at our preseason camp in Arizona, we’re able to cater everything to our specific needs and wants. At this tournament, just because of the sheer size and operating inside a bubble, it’s a different experience. For example, there are several good soccer complexes in the Orlando area. Instead of using four or five of them, we’re using one to maintain a bubble. That one-size-fits-all situation applies to each team. Having said that, all teams are sharing the same experiences with early or late match times, field watering schedules and food at the hotel. We’re definitely making the best of what we have.

What I’ve enjoyed the most is that this tournament is so unique. In my world, we can plan for days and days. But there’s really no comparison to prepare for something like this. It’s such a unique event that you’re presented with new scenarios every day, and we like figuring out how to adapt and manage those situations. It’s been interesting but it’s also been very fun. We’re in a good spot and really excited about the games to come. With our hopes of making a run in the knockout stage, hopefully this trip lasts a long time.