Contracts, obligations to international teams contributed to USL Championship title game cancellation

Little did Phoenix Rising FC realize this would be their last photo together for the season. After winning the USL Championship Western Conference, the USL Championship title game was canceled. (Photo by Aaron Bradley/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – A COVID-19 outbreak among the Tampa Bay Rowdies wasn’t the only factor that led to cancellation of the USL Championship match between Phoenix Rising FC and the Rowdies.

Expiring contracts and commitments to international teams made rescheduling the game impractical, which also played a role in cutting short the Rising’s season.

The USL announced in a statement Saturday that the game between the Rising and the Tampa Bay Rowdies had been canceled because of safety issues, and USL president Jake Edwards said a simple postponement wouldn’t work because of the timing of the required quarantine and the potential for more infections.

“All those players (who tested positive for COVID) will now go into two-week quarantine and need a preparation period,” Edwards said in an interview on ESPN FC. “So we were looking at a three week postponement at the very least.

“It was always our intent to finish the season around this time, knowing there were risks of playing during this part of the year with cases going up.”

He said the league and teams realized that trying to play the game presented significant risk for players – with no guarantee that further infections might not show up and prevent the game from being played in three weeks.

The Rising had nobody who tested positive for COVID-19 after going through testing on Tuesday and receiving results Wednesday. The team arrived in St. Petersburg, Florida on Thursday to wrap up training and undergo another round of testing before the championship.

However, after the USL’s rapid testing of both clubs in Florida, the league announced that Tampa Bay manager Neill Collins, assistant coach Kevin Foley and one other member of the Rowdies club had tested positive for COVID-19. Initially, the plan was to place those who tested positive in quarantine and allow the rest of the team’s players and coaches to go on with Sunday’s championship.

However, after the remainder of the club underwent additional testing Saturday morning at the medical facility of the Tampa Bay Rays baseball club, the Rowdies announced that more members had tested positive.

According to a report from The Athletic’s Jeff Rueter, the league still hoped to play the championship game, possibly within three to four weeks, after giving those who tested positive time to quarantine, recover and train.

However, the timing didn’t work because of contracts and international team commitments.

Rising’s Kevon Lambert, Damion Lowe and Junior Flemmings were called-up for Jamaica’s friendly fixtures against Saudi Arabia in Riyadh on November 14 and 17.

It also was an issue for Tampa Bay, with Panama calling up forward Juan Tejada for an international friendly against Japan November 13.

Further complicating the situation is a November 30 contract-expiration date for players on the two teams in the championship game. The league determined it would be unfair to players and the clubs to try to negotiate contract extensions or make decisions about players in such a short time frame.

After weighing all the factors, the USL decided to cancel the championship and leave each team with a conference championship. Phoenix Rising won the Western Conference championship, and Tampa Bay was crowned in the Eastern Conference.

The Rising issued a statement expressing wishes for a speedy recovery to the Rowdies but disappointment in not being able to play the game.

“This morning, we were heartbroken to learn that Covid-19 had unfortunately made its way into the Tampa Bay Rowdies camp,” Rising players said in a joint statement. “We pray for their health and recovery, yet we are saddened that we will not have the chance to proudly represent our families, our fans, and our club on our highest possible mountain top – as USL Championship Final winners.”

Some Rising players and coaches expressed their individual reaction on Twitter.

“2020 strikes again,” Zac Lubin tweeted. “After doing everything right as players and club, following protocols and going through everything 2020 has dumped on us, playing in a final, fighting for a trophy for the city of PHX was the payoff for everything we’ve been through, would have made it worth it,”
“Extremely sad for not being able to enjoy the moment of playing the USL Final,” Santi Moar tweeted. “Proud of all the efforts and sacrifices that everyone in this organization made through the year to get to this point. A helpless sensation at the moment but hard to compete against 2020.”

Edwin Perez Ed-WIN Per-ez (he/him)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Edwin Perez expects to graduate in spring 2022 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Perez, who has interned with The Arizona Republic and AIA, graduated from ASU with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and minor in Spanish. He is working for the Phoenix sports bureau.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Aaron Bradley James expects to graduate in spring 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. James enjoys covering baseball, football and auto racing and is working to improve his skills in Spanish and Portuguese.