WALLINGFORD — For 35 years, The Wallingford Invitational Soccer Tournament has grown and thrived. It’s taken a global pandemic to relegate it to the sidelines.
On Wednesday afternoon, TWIST co-directors Dave Rodriguez, Sean Stowik and Brian Burr officially canceled the 2020 tournament.
Like most summer events, TWIST has been twisting in the wind due to COVID-19. Sealing the tournament’s fate was Governor Ned Lamont’s announcement on Wednesday that extended to June 20 Connecticut’s shutdown order for, among other activities, youth sports and outdoor events of more than 50 people.
While TWIST doesn’t play until mid-August, the advance work and up-front costs required to stage the sprawling three-day event that draws thousands of players, families and spectators to Wallingford required a decision to be made now.
Not knowing what the pandemic will bring in next few months further forced the hands of the tournament directors.
“There are just so many variables and there are still so many unknowns,” Rodriguez said. “We couldn’t hold off too much longer on the decision, because although the (COVID-19) numbers are good — the hospitalization numbes are good; the positive case rates are good — we don’t know what it’s going to be like in August.
“And certainly the Governor’s decision to push out until June 20: We’re in the bucket where we can’t even really play until the decision comes out that we can return to play, even for limited training.”
Rodriguez spoke shortly after a teleconference with Burr and Stowik. All three directors have long been involved with TWIST. Their children have all played in it.
Wednesday’s decision was not easy, even if the directors were in agreement it was the right one to make.
“Being the longest running tournament in the state — this would have been our 36th straight year — there are mixed emotions, but we have to do what’s best for the kids, best for the spectators and best for our volunteers,” Rodriguez said. “We would just feel uncomfortable trying to push forward with all that’s going on in the big picture.”
The TWIST directors did not make their decision in a bubble. They were in regular contact with Wallingford Director of Health Stephen Civitelli, Wallingford Parks & Recreation Director Kenny Michaels and Wallingford native Josh Krusewski, the executive director of the Connecticut Junior Soccer Association.
They were also keeping tabs on the “return to play” recommendations being issued by organizations such as United States Youth Soccer and the Aspen Institute. Those groups, working with information from the Centers for Disease Control, have mapped out, in considerable detail, the safest ways to resume youth sports, moving slowly and incrementally from initial training sessions involving small groups to full-fledged games.
The recommendations by United States Youth Soccer and the Aspen Institute are very much in line with the ones issued this week by the National Federation of High School Associations to its state affiliates, including the CIAC, for resuming scholastic sports.
Given that COVID-19 has affected different areas of the country in differing degrees of severity, the recommendations aren’t one-size-fits-all. Among the few that are: Dictates of state and local government and health officials should supercede all.
“It’s a phased-in approach that hinges on local goverment,” said Rodriguez, a Connecticut Junior Soccer Association board member who is working on a statewide “return to play” committee. “Regardless of what these plans are, we would still be waiting for the Governor and then, in turn, our town to give the go-ahead.”
Rodriguez and his co-directors have been wrestling with the fate of TWIST 2020 since the pandemic shut down the sports world in mid-March. In soccer, the spring season for all Connecticut youth programs, such as the Wallingford Youth Soccer League, Meriden Soccer Club and Southington Soccer Club, was canceled.
TWIST, given its mid-August date, remained a possibility. Also, there was fervent interest from many of the clubs that traditionally play at TWIST. They were asking Rodriguez, Burr and Stowik not to cancel in hopes of relaunching their seasons in Wallingford.
So the TWIST directors got to work on a contingency plan. They figured they would limit the tournament to 60 teams and space games out by at least 20 minutes.
As many town-owned fields would be utilized as possible. To disperse crowds after games, teams would be required to move from location to location — the very opposite of the normal TWIST tactic, which is to keep teams at the same field to reduce travel.
Rodriguez kept Civitelli and Michaels abreast of plans and sought their opinions. One potential problem was apparent: crowd control.
“A coach can pretty much get players to fall in line with whatever we want them to do. It’s outside the lines that’s hard to control in a tournament setting,” Rodriguez said. “With the density, with the amount of people you have in an area, social distancing is not really something you can control.”
There were other potential snags. While the soccer clubs never wavered in their desire to play in a TWIST 2020, would the parents of their players be as agreeable?
“That’s something that wouldn’t be known up until the tournament because you don’t know what the (virus) situation will be at the time,” Rodriguez noted.
Then, on Wednesday, Lamont decreed that, until June 20, there can be no crowds of more than 50 for outdoor events. Crowds of more than 100 are a no-go until July 20.
After months of trying to find ways to make it work, the fate of TWIST was, finally, quite clear.
“There’s no way that we foresee a mass gathering being allowed over the summer; it’s just not going to happen,” Rodriguez said. “So, yeah, there were a lot of moving parts and we just felt we couldn’t move forward with so many variables.”