Ismael Tajouri-Shradi: “We have a routine always when we’re playing at 5 p.m, 7 p.m, 1 p.m, but not never ever played in my career at 9 a.m.” (Photo courtesy of MLS)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

An early rise and no spectators.

Ismael Tajouri-Shradi admits he has never seen anything like it as New York City FC makes its debut in an empty stadium at ESPN Wide World of Sports vs. the Philadelphia Union in the MLS Is Back Tournament at the ungodly hour of 9 a.m. Thursday.

Welcome to trying to play professional sports during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most professional sports teams will play in the afternoon, sometimes as early as noon, mostly at night.

So, a game at nine o’clock in the morning could interfere with the routine of many players.

“When the plan came out and we saw the first game was at 9 a.m., I think everyone was a little bit ooohh, it’s going to be how are we going to play at 9 a.m. because you have to wake up, three hours, four hours before, have a breakfast, make something before the game,” Tajouri-Shradi said during a media conference call on Tuesday. “We have a routine always when we’re playing at 5 p.m, 7 p.m, 1 p.m, but not never ever played in my career at 9 a.m.

“So, it’s going to be the first time for me without fans and a 9 a.m. game. It’s going to be different for sure. But I am not the only one playing at 9 a.m. for the first time. There’s going to be other players, also. We’re just going to have to forget about that.

“We’re going to try to give our best. It doesn’t matter what time is it. It’s going to be something different. I’m going to try my best and the team is going to try its best to get the win.”

Then comes the kickoff – in an empty stadium, which will be one strange experience for players and fans watching on TV.

“I never had to play games without fans,” Tajouri-Shradi said. “So, it’s going to be for me, the first time in my career. We have to do right now. We have no other choice. We have to try to do our best. … Of course in the first few minutes, you’re going to miss something, but after a few minutes you have to forget about it and focus on the game and try to play the game with the plan that we have and win the game.”

While NYCFC has had one opponent off the pitch with the COVID-19 pandemic, the team will concern itself with its foes on the field. The Union likes to counter press.

Head coach Ronny Deila indicated that they team probably will play in a 3-4-3 or 4-3-3 system.

“You’re going to see more and more on what I want throughout the season and into next season, because when they come into the end of the season, we have to be much better than we are right now,” he said. “We are working on our own style.  I think the players we have can be very strong in a 3-4-3 system or 4-3-3.”

Before the pandemic shut down the league, NYCFC had varying results in two competitions. In MLS, the team dropped 1-0 road decisions to Columbus Crew SC and Toronto FC. In the Concacaf Champions League, it bested AD San Carlos (Costa Rica), 5-3 away and 1-0 in the opening round before dropping a 1-0 home defeat to Tigres (Mexico) on March 11. That was the last time City played a competitive match.

“We had a good game against Tigres,” Deila said. “We did a lot of good things there. We just didn’t put the ball into the goal and that’s quite important when you play football. If we continue creating chances as a team, we’re going to be hard to play against. I think, physically now we are in a much better place than we were in January. The only thing challenging is that we haven’t played a game That’s the same for the others as well.

“I go into the game with a real belief, a good feeling. When I look back now, I wouldn’t have done anything differently since we started training again. I feel i know the players and the club and the league much better. I just look forward to get some games now to see where we are.”

Teams will be able to use as many as five substitutions in the competition, two more than the usual three. That will be important as everyone will try to battle fatigue, the lack of match fitness and the heat and humidity of central Florida.

Deila welcomed the fact he will have to extra chess pieces with which to play.

“The heat is here,” he said. “We haven’t played games for four months. So, of course, the subs are going to be very important for us when they come on, if we do it in the right way. That’s something we have been talking about with the coaches, to do the right things.”

He had not made any decisions on how he would rotate the team.

“This rotation thing, I have to take from game to game,” he said. “We have to see. For me, it’s important for us to create great relations on the team and if we change them all the time then it is of course more difficult to do that. But there [are] going to be changes. Hopefully we’re going to play all the way to the final. We’re going to need the whole squad. So, also, you can do more from the side when you have five subs. It’s very positive.”