Foxborough, Mass. — Who would have thought I’d beat my personal record for longest amount of time wearing a face mask (whatever it was) while covering the New England Revolution’s 0–0 draw with the Philadelphia Union at cavernous and quiet Gillette Stadium Thursday night?
Then again, 2020 is full of surprises.
This game was without a doubt the strangest experience I’ve ever had as a soccer reporter, though admittedly the bar before this was pretty low.
Lightning delays that stretched well past midnight and streakers interrupting games hold no candle to sitting inside the press box of an empty 62,000-seat football stadium with a half-inch thick plexi glass barrier partially obstructing my view of the field and my nearest colleague more than eight feet away.
I ultimately had my mask on for three hours and 15 minutes, pretty much from the moment I locked my car and walked into the stadium to when I exited after the postgame press conference and passed the security gate.
First responders, emergency crews and any other workers who spend significant time in public: I salute you.
These measures, and others that require compliance, represent the new reality of working in a MLS press box during a pandemic.
I’ve never taken the experience of arriving at a stadium or covering games for granted, and getting issued my press credential at the start of every season is always sentimental, but if any part of me was blasé about attending sporting events as a member of the press, I assure you, it’s not there anymore.
In any other year, Thursday’s clear and sunny weather would have made for one of the season’s nicest game nights.
However, games at Gillette Stadium through September are being played behind closed doors with no fans. As such, I rolled in during rush hour without delay and arrived at a stadium surrounded by empty parking lots.
Tailgaters sitting on truck beds or around charcoal grills? No.
Pitched tents or pregame festivities with the Midnight Riders or The Rebellion? Forget about it.
Children kicking around soccer balls on blacktop? In your dreams.
What about fans wearing Revolution jerseys or buses carrying youth soccer clubs? Sorry, but no.
MLS during a pandemic looks entirely different.
On arrival, all visitors, including media, completed a mandatory health assessment and temperature check. Signs reminding you to keep your mask on and practice good hygiene sit and hang throughout the stadium. Club staff also escort media members up to the press box and directly to their seat, one by one.
Usually the hour or so before kick-off is catch-up time for those who cover the team. We walk down a flight of stairs and into an auxiliary press room with tables, open windows and a good view of the field to have a catered pregame meal, discuss news and wait for the starting XI.
That area remains closed to media and the pregame meal scrapped in accordance with health and safety protocols.
There’s not much conversation in the press box, either. And the plexi glass barriers, combined with the distance between reporters and the consistent hum of the ventilation system, which makes a sound that’s best described as the one heard when you open an industrial refrigerator at the supermarket to get milk, makes for a sterile environment.
Prarie Rose Clayton, a local artist who designs and paints many of the banners hanging at Gillette Stadium during game days, told me club staff hung her many flags and tifos earlier in the day.
This too is a departure from the ordinary routine. Generally, Clayton shows up well before fans are allowed to enter the stadium and does this herself.
The Fort, where the Revolution’s most ardent fans usually sit, remained empty. But club scarves and flags laid draped on seats in homage to those joining the team in spirit.
The only noise heard from the press box all night came from the music played over the stadium speakers while the Revolution and Philadelphia warmed up. No lineup announcements, national anthem singing, or ad reads. No roars from the crowd when Cristian Penilla went in on goal in the tenth minute.
Just me, my mask, and my new plexi glass best friend. All while covering MLS during a pandemic.
“This isn’t going too well, is it?” my neighbor, Frank Dell’Apa of The Boston Globe said to me, speaking generally, from about 10 feet away.
It’s going as well as the new normal can.