As MLS gears for playoffs, LAFC’s Wright Phillips reflects on his challenging comeback season

It’s a fact that this has been a year of obstacles. There’s no way to sugarcoat it. From the daily challenges of balancing work and family during full or partial quarantine to the cycle of never ending, disheartening news on our timelines, this year has been a never ending cascade of challenge after challenge. 

It’s no different in the world of soccer. The stumbling blocks in the U.S have everywhere as the inability to enter stadiums, generate marketing revenue or to even just play has painted a grey picture, one that extends all the way down to youth academies and recreational and lower divisions. The pandemic attacked the soul of soccer in America.

But this article is not about dwelling on the past nor is it about highlighting the realities of struggle. I’m here, as a matter of fact, to show you the light at the end of the corridor and celebrate how resilient the American soccer community has been throughout 2020, how – slowly but surely – we will fully overcome and even though our soccer souls were challenged, they were not defeated.

Back in June,  NWSL’s Challenge Cup paved the way for all of U.S. sports, becoming the first U.S. professional sports league to restart a competition amid the pandemic and created the blueprint that led to MLS’s own tournament in Orlando (to say nothing of the NBA‘s bubble). There were obstacles, no doubt, which included teams opting out due to infections, travel restrictions and later on, as the regular season returned navigating MLS’s decision to allow teams to play in their respective markets. A reminder too that this wasn’t the case for everyone as Canadian clubs had to play somewhere else. This meant months for players, coaches and staff without a daily routine with their families as well as the uncertainty of playing and traveling in the first place. I talked to Thierry Henry a few weeks ago and his voice broke down as he talked about the struggle and the gigantic toll that him and his players dealt with.

“First, let’s put things in perspective. It’s been hard for everybody. People have lost their jobs, family members, people have lost their lives. People working in companies that will never exist again,” he said on Qué Golazo. “But if you’re talking about football….someone asked me how I dealt with all this because of my experience. And I replied, ‘I have never experienced this. I have never experienced not going home. I have never experienced dealing with a team that won’t see their family….If you lose a game, you go back to your hotel and you don’t see your loved ones and you need to disconnect. As a coach and leader of the group it was difficult and it’s still very difficult. But we have to go forward.” 

As soccer fans, we often just focus on the game itself, and that’s a natural thing to do. That is, after all, what drives us to be a fan in the first place. But more often than not, we also forget that these players also have a life, have families and can relate to you and I more than we think.  

Then there’s the ongoing fight against racial injustice and the growth of the message itself, driven by black players and members of the community. Black Players for Change, Voycenow and so many other organizations – driven by the marches and protests speaking out after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony Mcdade, Eric Garner and so many more at the hands of police brutality – pushed and led the coalition, moving the tide towards justice. It would be naive to say that things are fixed, because they aren’t. Far from it. But like anything in life that’s worth fighting for, the journey continues with patience and perseverance.  

So, as promised, this is about celebrating the game, the American game. From its multicultural strength to its growing, young fanbase and the eternal message of hope and resilience. As a result, I chatted to two people in the league who represent this very notion: LAFC’s Bradley Wright-Phillips, MLS 2020 Comeback Player of the Year and one of the greatest strikers the league has ever seen, and Gary Smith, the head coach of Nashville SC who in their inaugural season, amid obstacle after obstacle have made it to the playoffs. 

We also have Austin FC’s VP of marketing, James Ruth, to discuss the new kit and why their fans can’t wait for the new season as they enter the league and finally bring soccer back to Austin. 

Here’s to American fútbol. 

Craving even more coverage of the world’s game? Subscribe to ¡Qué Golazo! A Daily CBS Soccer Podcast where we take you beyond the pitch and around the globe for commentary, previews, recaps and more.  

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