Tuesday morning marked a long-awaited return to normalcy for the Michigan men’s soccer team.
Players and coaches took the pitch for the first full-team training session of the summer. Masks were worn and safety measures followed. Smiles were contagious.
Even amid a particularly ominous backdrop — their fall season rumored to be teetering on the brink of cancellation — the team left practice upbeat.
“Being together, it was very much missed,” coach Chaka Daley said. “Just being back, seeing each other, having a bit of banter, watching guys compete and play soccer, that’s what we’ve missed over the last five months.”
At 5:30, the team gathered again. The morning’s joy had turned into melancholy, grins wiped away by long faces. Daley briefed his players on the afternoon’s news — due to the unrelenting COVID-19 pandemic, the Big Ten had postponed all fall sports.
A hush descended over the team. The reality set in. One precious morning — that would be it.
“It’s really hard right now,” senior forward Mohammed Zakyi said. “There’s so many uncertainties. I’m just trying to keep my head up and not sulk about all this.”
The Big Ten’s decision leaves Zakyi and his teammates in limbo. Question marks are pressing and copious. Answers, largely absent.
“Seniors, we don’t even know if we have another year left,” Zakyi said. “I have so much stuff to figure out, with my eligibility, with my visa, with everything. What options come after this year? I aspire to go to the MLS, but I don’t know if there’s going to be a draft, if I’ll get to train here, if we’ll have a season. It’s just really hard.”
Up until Tuesday’s coup de grace, the team remained optimistic that a fall season could safely take place.
Closely adhering to University guidelines, players filtered back to campus the first week of August to prepare for the season. Players followed the 14-day pre-report risk assessment prior to their return and complied with the six-day resocilization period, which involved a series of tests and health screenings.
Monday, the team met as one for the first time. Tuesday was meant to kickstart the first week of preparation for the fall slate. But with the pandemic still at large, the Big Ten decided that college athletics weren’t feasible.
“Obviously, we’re disappointed,” Daley said. “No competitive student-athlete is going to take this news well. I do know that they all had a very good sense of realism, going into it understanding that we are in a global pandemic and that we’re fortunate just to be back.
“We just didn’t know the timeliness of this, that it would’ve happened as quickly as it did when we started our preseason. We were hopeful to have a little bit more time to see if things could work, but all the medical professionals, our University, our Athletic Department and the Big Ten made a decision that’s best for all the student-athletes.”
The team will continue to meet on a regular basis, likely a mixture of in-person training, scheduled workouts and Zoom calls, Daley said.
As per a potential season, all eyes turn toward the spring — a scenario not without its own issues.
“I don’t know how it would work because there are so many other sports going on,” Zakyi said. “If you add all the fall sports to that, it could get pretty overwhelming.”
The spring, though, presents itself as the only option for a season. Putting the uncertainty of the situation aside, Daley knows his team would embrace the idea.
“If we can compete this academic year, I’m sure the student-athletes would welcome the challenge and enjoy it,” Daley said. “And there are challenges with everything now. Playing in the fall, playing in the spring. You look at the spring sports, they already lost a season last year.
“Hopefully, we get through the other side of this in a positive way. And if we’re afforded the opportunity to play in the spring, our players will be motivated, hungry and ready to go.”
“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” Zakyi said. “But it would just be great to have the opportunity to play again.”