ORLANDO, Fla. – Andrew Bigelow just wanted a return to normalcy. All it took was a visit to the world of Mickey Mouse.
As a member of the Professional Referees Organization, which provides match officials for Major League Soccer, the DeKalb teacher and longtime soccer referee flew to Orlando in late June to serve as an assistant referee for three pool play matches and one knockout-round match at the MLS is Back tournament.
“It's a great opportunity to be a part of something,” Bigelow said. “It's something that none of us will probably ever experience again in our lifetimes, so that in itself is a novelty. I think also realizing why we all do this, we all love what we do in sports, and this was really the only avenue to participate and do what we're used to.”
After arriving in Orlando on June 30, Bigelow entered the MLS Bubble at the Swan and Dolphin Hotel, staying in quarantine until receiving a negative COVID-19 test. The MLS is Back tournament originally featured all 26 league teams, though outbreaks caught within FC Dallas and expansion Nashville FC forced both squads to withdraw.
The 24-team tournament featured six four-team groups, with the top 16 teams advancing to a four-round single-elimination tournament. Each team's three group-stage games count toward the league's overall standings, while the tournament champion receives an automatic berth in the 2021 CONCACAF Champions' League and a $1.1 million prize.
Since those initial hiccups, MLS largely has seen the bubble remain intact. Rigorous testing has aided that effort. Everyone involved with the tournament – players, team staff, referees, league personnel – takes a COVID-19 test every other day. On the day before involvement in a match, anyone participating takes another test.
To that end, the league has seen no positive tests since July 14. In all, Bigelow took 22 tests – two prior to traveling to Orlando, 18 while in Orlando and two at home. Disney launched extensive cleaning regimens and protocols to stop the spread of the coronavirus throughout its theme parks and hotels.
“MLS and the different groups involved have done a great job of making sure protocols are followed,” Bigelow said. “I think I speak for a lot of people, you feel very safe in the environment they've set up.
“I think it goes a long way to show the general public, when you take these precautions and you implement these very intentional protocols, you have the opportunity to do something like this. Hopefully it's an example to help not just sports, but the entire country as a whole.”
Bigelow faced three challenges while in Orlando – how to stay connected with those back home, how to handle the elevated heat and humidity of a summer month in central Florida and how to occupy time between matches. As he explained, technology aided in all three efforts.
In regard to his wife and four children, Bigelow checked in daily to video chat, while Zoom for online meetings proved vital in his efforts to prepare for the upcoming school year as DeKalb's instructional coach.
That time using technology helped fill the gaps not spent working out on the field or during his match day duties. Technology served an integral role in his recovery after running several miles up and down the sidelines as temperatures soared well into the 90s.
The day after a match, Bigelow received massages to aid in the removal of lactic acid from his muscles. In addition, PRO employs a sports science department that suggested the use of Normatec boots to further that process. The referees also took advantage of a conference room converted into an exercise center inside the hotel.
“We have a field dedicated just to the referee group,” Bigelow said. “It's all things considered when it comes to physical training. We try to take advantage of (everything available), but your sleep is actually the most important part of it. You just make sure you're resting as much as you can.”