Nico Lodeiro released a heavy sigh into the phone Thursday afternoon.

How much pain was the Sounders FC midfielder in last season? Almost too much to describe as Lodeiro, whose first language is Spanish, searched for words during an interview following training in Florida. The pain definitely wasn’t detected as he helped the club win the 2019 MLS Cup, contributing five assists and two goals during the fall playoff run.

“It was very hard for me. …nobody knew,” Lodeiro said of the magnitude of the tendinitis in his right thigh that also became a problem in his left as he compensated for the injury. He also dealt with a lower-back injury suffered in September.

“But the more important thing was we finished the season with the Cup,” Lodeiro said of his second league championship.

All Lodeiro wanted was time to get 100 percent healthy for the 2020 season. What Lodeiro – and the world – received was a complete shutdown due to the coronavirus pandemic where resuming cherished activities became uncertain. Major League Soccer suspended its season March 12, making Seattle’s title match against Toronto FC before 69,274 fans at CenturyLink Field the last soccer competition for Lodeiro.

The native of Uruguay missed the Sounders’ bow out in the CONCACAF Champions League tournament and two MLS matches because of the thigh injury. A government-mandated stay-home order to help slow the spread of COVID-19 tacked another four months onto Lodeiro’s absence from the field.

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But that pain turns to joy Friday as the Sounders resume their season with a MLS is Back Tournament opener against the San Jose Earthquakes. The 6 p.m. PT match will be broadcast on ESPN and played without fans at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex, which is southwest of Orlando.

“Nico is hungry,” Sounders midfielder Cristian Roldan said of his teammate Wednesday via video conference call. “He’s taken care of his body, his business and now is trying to jell all of our guys together and create that chemistry that we haven’t had the ability to do in preseason while he was out. So, he’s eager and he’s ready and he’s going to play a big part in our team, especially in this tournament.”

MLS’s return amid the pandemic has changed the Sounders’ schedule three times this week. The league’s teams are sequestered at Disney’s Swan and Dolphin Resort and tested frequently for the virus.

FC Dallas and Nashville SC were withdrawn by the league after a combined 20 people in their travel delegations tested positive for COVID-19. Dallas was in Group B with Seattle. MLS adjusted the tournament schedule to move the Chicago Fire FC into Group B – forming six groups with four teams each.

Seattle will now also play Tuesday against Chicago at 6 a.m. and July 19 against Cascadia Cup rival Vancouver Whitecaps FC at 7:30 p.m. The first two matches will air on ESPN. Fox Sports 1 will carry the Vancouver game.

While testing could further change the schedule, weather is a guaranteed opponent. Kickoff on Friday could see temperatures in the 80s with a chance of thunderstorms.  

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“We need to keep possession because the weather here is very humid and very hot,” Lodeiro said. “We can’t run long and wrong because you’ll (waste energy). And we haven’t played in a long time because of the pandemic, so it’s going to be different. This 90 minutes, it’s going to be very important to try to control the tempo and concentrate.”

Lodeiro’s last match was an electric win. The club’s last outing was a draw against the Columbus Crew SC on March 7 at CenturyLink. Coupled with dropping the Champions League first-round to CD Olimpia and the Sounders are entering the tournament wanting to reaffirm their place atop the league.

The club is expected to be without midfielder Joao Paulo and forward Will Bruin because of minor injuries.

“Not having Nico threw us back, but that’s no excuse,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said via phone last week. “I was more bummed out about the loss in Champions League.

“The teams that have a 10-minute period where you’re really playing up to your potential, those will be the ones that move on in this tournament.”

The preliminary-round match results will count toward the regular season, should the league be able to resume a traditional schedule this fall. The top two clubs from each group advance to the knockout stages. The top four finishers among the remaining 12 will complete the Round of 16 bracket.

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The championship match is slated for Aug. 11, the winner earning the 2021 Champions League berth and $1.1 million.

Black Players for Change

MLS players participate in a Black Lives Matter pregame ceremony before a match between Orlando City and Inter Miami during the MLS is Back tournament at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Florida, on Wednesday, July 8, 2020.  (Mike Ehrmann / TNS)
MLS players participate in a Black Lives Matter pregame ceremony before a match between Orlando City and Inter Miami during the MLS is Back tournament at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Florida, on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. (Mike Ehrmann / TNS)

On Friday, the Sounders are expected to join other MLS clubs who have made pregame demonstrations in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Details weren’t disclosed, but the club’s Black players were part of a league-wide show of solidarity for the tournament’s kickoff Wednesday organized by the Black Players for Change, a newly formed group of more than 170 of the league’s Black athletes.

The Rave Green’s Handwalla Bwana, Jordy Delem, Yeimar Gomez Andrade, Joevin Jones, Kelvin Leerdam and Nouhou bordered the field with the others prior to the match between Inter Miami FC and Orlando City SC and raised their right fist in the air in silence for 8 minutes and 46 seconds — the amount of time a white police officer knelt on the neck of George Floyd, a Black man, killing him on May 25.

On Thursday, Philadelphia Union players each replaced their name on their jerseys to instead wear the surname of a Black person killed by police. The MLS jerseys also have white strips below the numbers where players can write personal messages.

“It was really emotional and great to see the display (Wednesday),” Lodeiro said as translated from Spanish on the call. “It’s really important to show there’s no place for racism in the world. I like how MLS has accommodated and supported the movement. …We have to put an end to this (racism).”