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Facing the challenge of a hastily rescheduled match for a squad decimated due to COVID-19 protocols, Phoenix Rising has signed six teenagers to its squad on amateur contracts.
Zak Smith, Thomas Knight, Kevin Mearse, Luke Schaefer, Blaize Hardy and Jack Baker joined the club on USL Academy contracts. The nature of those deals means that the players will maintain college eligibility despite competing in professional matches. Each of the players is local to Arizona and has played in Rising-affiliated youth teams.
“I’m proud of the work being done by [assistant coaches] Danny Stone, Andy Chapman and everyone involved with our Academy ” Rising general manager Bobby Dulle said in a press release. “These players have proven they are ready for this opportunity. We know they will give everything they have to help our club achieve our goals.”
While Dulle said that the players “have proven they are ready,” limited player availability due to USL’s health protocols has forced the club’s hand in an attempt to field a full match-day roster.
“First and foremost, COVID rates are on the rise nationwide,” USL senior vice president Will Kuhns said. “They’re pretty high. We actually did pretty well in the first few weeks of the season. Now, we’re seeing a spate of positive tests and the result of contact tracing has caused us to postpone a few games.”
Rising should have faced New Mexico United on Saturday. According to tweets by Dulle, a positive test occurred on Friday morning prior to the team’s departure, leading to the match postponement.
So far, there is only one certain positive case within the Rising camp. Eleven more people entered isolation as close contacts.
“The policy is the same this year as last year in the sense that we follow CDC guidelines, and the CDC makes a distinction between people who are up to date [on vaccines] and everyone else, basically,” Kuhns said. “Somebody who is up to date has had their booster if eligible. But, if you’re ‘fully vaccinated’ and not up-to-date, you fall under a different category: the same category as an unvaccinated person when it comes to contact tracing.”
Players who have received a booster are not required to isolate, Kuhns said. However, those who haven’t must quarantine for five days. Players in isolation do not have to test in order to rejoin the squad after five days.
The requirement to remain in isolation means that none of the involved players can travel to face New Mexico. Instead, six academy players have joined the team in their place.
“The league does not try to reschedule a game in this circumstance during the five-day quarantine,” Kuhns said. “We would look outside the five-day quarantine to reschedule the game.”
However, stadium availability came into play. New Mexico United primarily plays at Isotopes Park, a Triple-A baseball stadium. Tuesday’s match will take place across the street at the University of New Mexico’s soccer complex.
In an interview with Albuquerque’s KMGG-LP, New Mexico United chief business officer Ron Patel cited a lack of viable dates.
“We couldn’t find a date we could use where there wasn’t UNM football; there wasn’t Isotopes,” Patel said. “Also, we were coordinating with Phoenix’s schedule because they’ve got a whole national schedule that they’re playing around the country. It was really, really difficult, so when the league offered to play this Tuesday, we said let’s do it because otherwise we might risk having to go play this game on the road.”
The decision to move so quickly has drawn ire from Phoenix supporters.
“It’s a difficult one,” Kuhns said. “It’s a conversation with both clubs, and it’s the league’s decision ultimately. The league will take into consideration venue availability, the availability of referees, operational, logistics, travel, days between matches for both sides and competitive considerations as well before making a decision. There’s a lot of different moving parts that go into that, but in every case both clubs are consulted.”
However, in tweets on Sunday, Dulle said the initial rescheduling conversations — and decisions — took place without Rising’s presence.
“Our standard process is to consult both clubs,” Kuhns said in response to that statement. “My understanding is that both clubs were consulted in the rescheduling of this match.”
Despite that, Dulle doubled down on his comment on Monday. In an emailed response, he maintained that Rising was involved only “after we were told the match would take place on Wednesday.
“Based on that information, we suggested playing on Monday or Tuesday due to our travel to Hartford for this weekend’s game.”
Now Rising will travel to face one of its closest rivals with a limited number of full professional players available. It will be the first of four postponed matches this year to take place. None of the other dates have been announced.
“We don’t like postponing games and we want to reduce the chances that will happen,” Kuhns said. “We encourage all covered persons to be up to date. That’s one thing that can help a lot.
“I think we have to continue to monitor the situation. On the one hand, we don’t like having to postpone games, but it does show how seriously USL and its clubs take the pandemic and the safety of our players.”