The National Women’s Soccer League this weekend will become the first US team sport to return to competition during the coronavirus pandemic with a tournament that brings both opportunity and uncertainty.
Missing several players from the US national team for myriad reasons, eight of the league’s nine clubs will play in the month-long Challenge Cup without spectators at two venues in suburban Salt Lake City.
From players to owners, the NWSL hopes to take advantage of starting two weeks before MLS and several weeks ahead of the NBA, NHL, WNBA and Major League Baseball.
In a reminder of these perilous times, however, the Orlando Pride on Tuesday withdrew from the tournament after six players and four staff members tested positive for coronavirus.
“There is a healthy amount of excitement, but also some nervousness surrounding it,” said Kelley O’Hara, a defender for the national team and the Utah Royals. “Everyone is feeling that in their day-to-day life in the world we live in now.”
To help prevent outbreaks at the tournament, players and staff will remain largely sequestered. Several visiting teams will stay at a hotel without any other guests and other teams will move into the soccer academy residence adjacent to the training fields and artificial-turf stadium in Herriman, Utah, where most of the tournament will transpire.
The semifinals and final will take place on the grass field at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah.
Safety protocols have been spelled out and players and staff members will undergo daily screenings and regular testing, as they have in the buildup to the tournament.
Orlando’s outbreak, Washington Spirit defender Tori Huster said, “was a reminder — and unfortunately a lesson — that we need to stick to protocols like we have been doing. It was a little nerve-wracking that something could go wrong before we leave.”
Huster, who is president of the NWSL Players Association, also said, “As athletes, we are very focused on one goal. We are not going to let anything stand in our way, so we follow the procedures and protocols. I’m sure [the Orlando situation] made everyone second-guess a little bit, but the goal for the last month and a half has been this tournament.”
The tournament will begin in a national spotlight: CBS will show Saturday’s opener (12:30 p.m.) between the North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns — the first US women’s pro match to appear on a major over-the-air network.
CBS also will carry the July 26 final. All other matches will appear on CBS All Access, the network’s streaming platform.
The regular season had been scheduled to begin April 18, but like in all other sports, health concerns postponed activities. Barring considerable improvement in the coronavirus battle, the NWSL owners do not plan to hold the regular season this year.
Each team in Utah will play four first-round matches. With seedings set, all eight will then move into the knockout stage.
“Some players are definitely weighing the risk of infection and the desire to play football — what they love to do,” said Richie Burke, the Spirit’s English-born coach. “I’m pleased they’ve stayed in this safety bubble and tried staying away from any infection. This is something they’ve wanted.”
Not everyone wanted it. While every Spirit player boarded a charter to Salt Lake City (via Raleigh to pick up the Courage), superstar Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign) and US World Cup teammates Tobin Heath (Portland) and Christen Press (Utah Royals) opted out. Heath and Press cited safety and Rapinoe did not comment.
US players Carli Lloyd and Mallory Pugh (both with Sky Blue FC) withdrew because of injury, and Alex Morgan, Ali Krieger, Emily Sonnett and Ashlyn Harris were ruled out when Orlando canceled. Brazilian forward Marta, a six-time world player of the year, is also employed by the Pride.
Every NWSL player is guaranteed a paycheck, whether they participate.
Preparations for the tournament have not been easy for all teams. Barred from its training base at Maryland SoccerPlex because of Montgomery County safety restrictions, the Spirit first trained on private land in Haymarket, Va., then moved to Hood College in Frederick County, Md.
OL Reign, which is based in the Seattle-Tacoma area, trained in Montana.
Aside from those representing various national teams in the late fall and early spring, NWSL players have not had competitive matches in eight months.
“Are we 100% ready? I don’t think there is one team that is,” said Burke, whose team will open Saturday (10 p.m.) against the 2019 runner-up Chicago Red Stars, then face two-time defending champion North Carolina on July 1, Portland on July 5 and the Houston Dash on July 12. “Every coach I’ve spoken to has said the same thing: It’s going to be a bit of a test.”
Huster said the start of teams' first matches are "going to look a little messy, but once you see those top players take control, I think people will be in for a treat."
In its eighth year, the league had hoped to ride momentum generated by the US World Cup championship in 2019 and the growing awareness of women’s sports. Attendance grew late last summer, sponsors took interest and CBS signed on.
In the absence of a 2020 season, the Challenge Cup will have to do.
“I hope it helps us gain a wider audience,” Huster said. “Entertain the people you haven’t entertained in the past and hopefully put a decent enough product - which I believe we have - on the field so people will want to continue watching, even when there are other sports on TV.”