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Sporting Diaries presented by Audi: Assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin talks daily routine, blossoming hobby and significance of MLS is Back Tournament

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In the fourth edition of this behind-the-scenes series, assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin discusses his daily routine inside the Disney Bubble, his blossoming free-time hobby and Sporting Kansas City’s unique experience competing in the MLS is Back Tournament.

By no means would I classify myself as an artist, but I’ve really grown to enjoy drawing. It gives me that mental release that all of us need from time to time.

During the several weeks of quarantine in Kansas City, we all had to get creative in our own ways to not only pass the time but to remain mentally healthy in our lives. I was talking to my mom on the phone—she’s retired and living alone in Michigan—and she had picked up drawing online. She had shown me a couple of her pictures, and I thought, “OK, maybe I’ll give that a shot.” I went online and found a few YouTube channels that help you with various art techniques, so I’ve spent a lot of my off time drawing ever since.

For my birthday on July 2, my family bought me a sketchpad and some pencils to bring down here to Florida. I obviously spend a lot of time at the hotel watching tape of games, preparing for opponents and planning training, but with some of the free-time opportunities I do have, I’ll get out my sketchpad.

I started off by playing a little game with my daughter. She enjoys art and she’s taken a few art classes at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. She really likes drawing, so I started sketching a few Disney characters knowing that I was coming down to Disney World and knowing how much she liked Disney. I would draw Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Elsa from Frozen, any of the Disney characters I could get my hands on. But then I started branching into different aspects like drawing famous landmarks. I’ve drawn Notre Dame and L’Arc de Triomphe, which were based on a Christmas trip we took to Paris this past year. Different ideas have popped into my mind, and now I’m starting to work with different shading techniques and sketching.

I usually only share my work with my daughter, who loves my drawings. But I’ve passed them around to a couple of the guys on the staff, too. Like I said, by no means would I consider myself an artist, I have received some positive feedback from time to time with the guys. My favorite Disney character has got to be Mickey Mouse. He’s the number one. He’s the leader of the group. He’s the first one you see when you walk into Disney World, and probably the easiest character to draw.

We took a charter flight from Kansas City to Orlando, and moving forward I think that will be an essential part of how we travel from market to market for matches.

Even in a perfect world without a pandemic, Major League Soccer is evolving into a league in which charter flights are going to become a normal part of the travel routine. I think it was accelerated a little bit with the current environment that we live in, but from a safety perspective, I think it’s a no-brainer to limit the exposure that we have to other travelers.

There’s obviously a benefit to limiting our time spent in hotels as well, because we can’t control normal hotel environments quite like we can here in the Disney World bubble. From a safety perspective, which is our number one priority, I think charters are a no-brainer.

We knew coming down here that we were going to face some sort of adversity.

From the testing protocols and the unpredictable weather to the training fields and food, these were all things that you aren’t accustomed to when you leave home. We knew there would be some challenges along the way, and certainly we haven’t been able to maximize all of the amenities at our disposal based on the fact that we had a positive COVID-19 test a few days after we arrived. For the next week, most of my time was limited to the sixth floor of the hotel, along with the meal room, the training fields and the team workout facility.

We had just come off of a false positive back in Kansas City before heading to Florida, so we knew there was always a possibility that the test could be wrong. When we got confirmation that we indeed had a positive case, I think there was disappointment within the group. The reason being is that everyone had acted responsibly and followed protocols, so it was a little frustrating to come up with a positive test.

After the morning test had confirmed a positive case, everyone in our traveling delegation was tested again. When all of the follow-up tests came back negative, we were permitted to hold a training session later that evening. You could tell there was a distinct difference within the group. There was a little shock, a little disappointment and certainly a letdown. The training that evening was not good, as you would expect. That pretty much carried over into a precarious next six to seven days. Getting tested every single day to ensure there was no spread of the virus really weighed on the group. As I said, we knew we would face adversity. We didn’t know we would face a positive test down here.

All of that affected the group more than people would think, and I think it reflected in our first game against Minnesota. I think there was some residual effect going into our second game as well. It’s not an excuse, it’s just the reality of the adversity we were facing down here.

Now that we find ourselves somewhat in the clear, having tested negative for over 10 days, I think there’s a sigh of relief within the group. The opportunity to go to dinner in the hotel restaurants the last couple of nights has certainly changed the mentality and the attitude of the group on the training field. And it’s certainly reflected in the performance of the players this past week.

At the end of the day, we’re in Disney World. Considering the circumstances, this is a great environment.

To be down here in the Disney area, although it’s not business as usual—our hotel is reserved for Major League Soccer—we still get the feel of being in Disney World with the Boardwalk in sight. We’ve got beach volleyball courts, pools and some really nice amenities in and around the hotel. I think the league has done a really nice job creating an environment in which we can feel comfortable. The overriding condition that MLS tried to create was one of safety. When you merge that with the amenities—the restaurants, the gyms, the pools, the running areas—I think it’s a very good place to be.

On our hotel floor, we also have access to a poker room, a video game room with an old-school arcade that has Pac-Man and Galaga, and a ping pong room for the players. Now that we have more freedom, we’ll be able to extend ourselves a little bit further out into the pool area and onto the beach volleyball courts.

As coaches, our motivation in this tournament was to not be overly critical of the things we are doing or not doing on the field. We’ve tried to maintain a positive attitude as we reflect on the games as a team.

You can push the players in a much different way under normal circumstances, but to understand what they are going through right now—to understand the environment they have to live in and play in—it would be counterproductive to berate them for their shortcomings on the field. The first performance against Minnesota was nowhere near what we last saw our team deliver against Houston in March. If we can take small steps forward, and I think we did against Colorado, we can take positives from that. The most important thing was to get a result.

To get through these three group stage games and get as many points as possible was always going to be one of our biggest goals, just knowing that these would be the games that matter in the big picture of the regular season. We’re progressing day by day, and I know that a weight has been taken off the players now that everyone is testing negative. That allows them to focus even more on their performance on the field, and I would expect the energy level and the enthusiasm will probably be at its high point against Real Salt Lake.

The 9 a.m. local time kickoff will present a unique challenge, but it’s a challenge the players are ready for.

There’s no doubt that the weather is going to be a factor. In the 9 o’clock games, you see the intensity of the game drop off significantly as you enter the second half. I wouldn’t be surprised to see that in our game as well, despite the fact that we have a solid fitness base and we’re acclimating to the heat and humidity of Orlando. Real Salt Lake has always been a very good, tough opponent over the years and one of our big rivals in the league. When you combine a difficult opponent and a difficult environment, we know the challenges we face. But we’ve played preseason games at 10 o’clock in the morning and our normal training sessions here take place at 8 a.m. From a body clock perspective, I think the players will actually be more comfortable playing a game at this time of the day, just based on the recent routine of our training schedule

Our nutritionist and performance staff have encouraged the players to get up a little bit earlier the past few days, somewhere around 6 o’clock, just to get a meal in them. On a normal training day, they’ll have a pretty light breakfast—maybe just some fruit before we go to the fields. But now we’re preparing to play 90 minutes in a real game, so they’ll obviously want to fuel up a lot more. We’ll have game day breakfast around 6:30, leave for the fields around 7:30 and then kickoff at 9 a.m.

Exercising and FaceTiming the family give you a much-needed mental break on a daily basis.

We have access to a few Peloton bikes on our hotel floor, so that's been a welcome addition for sure. There are also a few running paths here in the bubble, and I’ve taken a few opportunities to run with others on our staff. I most recently ran with our nutritionist Diane Robison, which I regret considering the fact that she was an All-American cross country runner in college. She pushed me well beyond my limits. But a lot of the guys on staff are using their free time to exercise. We have a weight room, some Pelotons and the ability to run outside, so we’re covered in that regard.

I also FaceTime my family a few times per day. We got into a good routine before I left where we spent a lot of time together. My daughter wasn’t going to school, so we had done some homeschooling with her and gotten used to being around each other a lot. Now that I’ve left home, we’ve tried to keep a similar routine. I’ll spend some FaceTime with my daughter in the morning, and then at night we’ll read stories like we normally do at home. That’s definitely a welcome part of my day—talking to my daughter, my wife and my family.

It didn’t take long to settle into a daily routine.

I’m usually up by 5:30 in the morning. We’ll go down for breakfast, have testing and then get on the bus for training by 7 a.m. As we get back after training, we’ll have a snack, get some work done, have lunch, and then for me it’s a lot of game preparation, film work and anything we might need for the following day. Later in the afternoon, we’ll have a few phone calls and meetings, evaluate players from a scouting perspective, talk to our scouts who are working toward the next transfer window, and deal with any of the loose ends that the day may need. After that, you fill up your day with exercising, drawing and getting ready for dinner. I usually watch both evening games in the MLS is Back Tournament and go to bed some time around midnight. Then we’re back at it the next day.

At this point in time, you’d have to say the MLS is Back Tournament has been a success. Where this stands in my experience with the professional game, it’s unprecedented. It’s something I’ve never experienced in my lifetime.

The environment the league has created has been great and I love the format of the tournament: meaningful group stage games that count toward the league, followed by the knockout phase. I think we should be proud of ourselves as a league about what we’ve been able to accomplish despite all of the apprehension of whether we were going to be able to pull this off.

As the tournament enters the knockout phase, I think this competition is only going to gain momentum and give confidence to Major League Soccer and the rest of the sports leagues across the country that something like this is possible. It’s also going to be a catapult to finishing off the regular season in our home markets, so I’m extremely happy with where we sit and what’s transpired down here. I see so much more positive than I see negative in this situation. Hopefully it’s something we don’t have to experience again because we miss playing in front of our fans, but we’re certainly making the best of the situation.