There are things professional soccer players want to eat before games. And there are things they want to eat at 6 a.m. for breakfast.
That these things tend not to overlap represents but one of the many headaches created when Major League Soccer — in yet another of the sports world’s unwieldy concessions to the coronavirus — scheduled kickoffs at 9 a.m. for several of its games this summer.
“Normally pre-match, I would have chicken and pasta and salmon,” said Gary Mackay-Steven, a midfielder for N.Y.C.F.C., pondering this gustatory predicament. “But the thought of having salmon at six in the morning isn’t too appealing.”
These early morning matches, in a time slot more suitable for a suburban children’s league, materialized because league officials wanted to jam a tournament schedule into a tight time frame at a single site in Orlando, Fla., with no simultaneous games. Concerns about the scalding Florida sun ruled out much of the middle of the day.
Breakfast, of course, is far from the only issue here (even if it has felt like the one most consistently cited by players). Coaches will have to coax high-level performances from players who may be happier crawling back under the covers. Players who are accustomed to having a full day to prepare mentally and physically for a match may risk sleepwalking onto the field, dew underfoot, with bed head and morning breath.
“None of the guys were really happy about it,” said Matt Real, 20, a defender for the Philadelphia Union, who were scheduled to face New York on Thursday morning. “The earliest we ever play is 1:30, and even that’s strange for guys.”
Preparations for a 9 a.m. kickoff, then, start several days in advance. Ronny Deila, the coach of N.Y.C.F.C., scheduled practices at 8 a.m. for the past week, hoping to gradually roll back his players’ internal clocks.
On game day, to get his players’ competitive juices flowing at an hour when they might still be rubbing sleep from their eyes, Deila planned to de-emphasize the tactical discussion in his pregame speech and focus on stirring their spirits with motivational words.
“You think, ‘What is this? Nine in the morning?’ ” he said. “But you just have to go with it. It’s the same for both teams.”
James Sands, a defensive midfielder for N.Y.C.F.C., noticed a lot of tired eyes at the team’s first few early morning practices. He compared the flip-flopped schedule to the feeling of jet lag.
Still, hearing the final whistle blow before brunch could have its benefits: Sands said he was typically so full of adrenaline after evening games that it took him well into the middle of the night to fall asleep.
“Maybe by playing at 9 a.m., I’ll actually be able to sleep at night,” he said.
The players will not be the only ones making adjustments this summer. Fans who might normally grab a game time beer may find themselves craving a kickoff cappuccino. The unorthodox timing will be most punishing for fans on the West Coast, where the games will air at 6 a.m.
Pearl Derksen-Zhou, 35, a Seattle Sounders fan, requested the day off as soon as she saw that the team’s schedule featured one of the morning games. She promptly made breakfast plans.
“I’m probably going to make Sounders pancakes — green and blue little food-colored pancakes,” she said.
Bleary-eyed viewings of soccer games, Derksen-Zhou noted, were already a rite of passage for American fans: She has often woken up as early as 4 a.m. to catch English and Spanish league games on TV.
Chris Pribbernow, 27, a fan from Sammamish, Wash., joked that the professionals would finally get a taste of what it was like to get up for a rec league game in the park. He typically felt fine playing at that hour, he said, “just as long as I make reasonable decisions the night before.”
M.L.S. players this summer may have trouble getting into any late-night shenanigans. (They’re quarantining at the ESPN sports complex at Disney World. Where would they go?) But bedtimes for these men will nevertheless become loaded with significance.
Jim Curtin, the Union coach, pointed out that his squad had players from a dozen different countries, including some where dinnertime culturally tends to be on the later side.
“A lot of our South and Central American players — and I’m not knocking this at all — they’ll eat dinner at 11, 11:30,” Curtin said, laughing. “I’m not like a curfew guy, but this is going to be one where I want them in bed anywhere between 8 to 10 o’clock at night. It’s going to be strange for some of them. Some of them are literally ordering food at that point.”
Mackay-Steven, 29, said he would get into bed the night before at 9:30, read for half an hour (he’s working through “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde) and hit the lights by 10.
“Hopefully I’ll get eight hours,” he said.
Once the players arise, there will be only so much time to warm up their engines.
“Coffee might be smart,” said Alejandro Bedoya, 33, a veteran midfielder for the Union. “I’ll definitely have two, maybe three, cups, just to get the adrenaline going.”
The earliest Bedoya had ever previously started a match was at 12:30 p.m., when he was playing in Scotland. His team then, Rangers, had players eat plates of grilled chicken and pasta at 9 a.m.
“It was disgusting,” Bedoya said. “I hated it.”
The problem is even more acute for a player like Real, who does not like to eat much of anything when he wakes up. But, he acknowledged, you need energy to play soccer. And you need food to get energy.
He would not be the only player, he said, who would have to solve this problem.
“A lot of guys, I can tell you, are definitely going to be forcing food down their throats,” he said.