How the NWSL is returning this weekend and actively facing the question of coronavirus

This weekend, the National Women’s Soccer League will become the first American team sport to return during a once-in-a-generation global pandemic.

The plan? Try to put the health of players before the game while still playing it.

We’re out of the hypothetical, how-do-we-make-this-work stage. This is happening — on Saturday, when the month-long NWSL Challenge Cup kicks off in Utah.

The league has already faced virus-related hurdles. This past Monday, a player on the Orlando Pride tested positive for Covid after going out to a bar in Florida. A few days later, six players and four staff were found to have the virus, too. Given that all the NWSL teams will be in an enclosed environment in Utah, the league is requiring anyone who’s tested positive to quarantine, and their contacts must be traced.

Since it was unlikely the Pride would have enough unaffected players to field a full team, the club pulled out on Monday. Players were bummed. Sydney Leroux tweeted this:

High profile players like Christen Press, Megan Rapinoe, and Tobin Heath have all opted not to play due to safety concerns. Adrianna Franch, Mallory Pugh, and Carli Lloyd are out with injuries.

But most are determined to make the tournament work.

“Obviously, you don’t want to see a team drop out due to Covid,” Desiree Scott, a Canadian midfielder on the Utah Royals, told me over the phone. “I feel for those players in Orlando in terms of being scared for their health, and it’s disappointing to train towards a tournament and not be able to come. It’s been super safe here in Utah, and I think that with protocols and what’s been put forth by the league I’m in a comfortable place. But it comes as a roller coaster as these things come in.”

And a roller coaster is sort of the vibe in general these days, isn’t it? Utah is currently seeing an increase in cases. Everyone is flying by the seat of their pants when it comes to navigating a situation no one wants to be in. People want to find a way to do their jobs safely.  Many players are eager to get back on the field, but obviously had questions about safety when the league first proposed the tournament format.

Yael Averbuch, a former NWSL veteran and executive director of the National Women’s Soccer League Players Association, said that the league has reassured players it will take care of them.

“The league wanted to do the right thing here,” Averbuch said. “They wanted to work with us, so it was a really good collaborative process to make sure they could 100% confirm the things that we needed before we gave them the green light and our support.”

Some of those things included: making sure that athletes with kids could bring them and have guaranteed childcare, and ensuring full salaries and healthcare through the end of the year. The league complied.

Now that enough players are comfortable with the set-up, the success of the tournament comes down to individuals taking responsibility for the whole. Leroux tweeted recently, “Unfortunately, WE are the reason this ship sunk. Period.” It’s worth mentioning that while staying safe for the greater good is necessary for athletes, it’s also true for us mere mortals who develop calf cramps after light jogs.

And unfortunately, women soccer players are used to taking one for the team.

“It’s not ideal to be put in a village where you’re stuck there for a month at the same time,” the Chicago Red Stars’ Danielle Colaprico told me. “But we all want to be back playing, and if that’s what it takes, we’ve been making sacrifices our whole life to play the sport we love. We can just add this one to the list.”

There are definitely sacrifices involved here. But NWSL players hope that by being the only team sport on television when Americans are starved for them, they’ll be able to expand the sport’s growing fan base. On the heels of yet another U.S. World Cup win and a surge of support for the US National Team, many NWSL teams saw an uptick in ticket sales last year. There’s real momentum, and players like Raquel Rodriguez, a midfielder on the Portland Thorns, see the Cup as an opportunity to keep it going.

“It’s big risk, big reward, hopefully,” Rodriguez said. “Being the first, other leagues could learn from our mistakes if they pop up. There’s a downside. But on the other hand, I really hope that we get attention from people who normally don’t watch women’s soccer. If we’re the only tournament around, hopefully it makes the league grow.”

The tournament also provides a nationwide platform for players to speak out following the death of George Floyd. Athletes in all leagues have been very publicly involved in the Black Lives Matter movement: many have gone to protests, raised money, and been vocal online.

“There’s still some conversations being had as to how we really want to represent ourselves and our voices in this Black Lives Matter movement,” Scott said. “How we can really shed light on the situation, continue to educate, and have a voice in the league.”

And then there’s the actual play. Not only must the players perform in a completely new environment, they have to be in shape for it. Before training facilities opened up, they had to do their best to stay fit in their basements and homes. A tournament means quicker turn-around between games and a higher level of competition. Every game determines whether you make it to the next round or go home. Those results have implications — they determine the season’s champion and affect teams’ draft picks.

It’s the kind of format you want to see the top players compete in. Players like Marta, a Brazlian star on the Pride so legendary that she only needs one name. I spoke to her last week before Orlando dropped out, and she told me through a translator how excited she was to get back on the field. Was she a little nervous about the risks involved with playing soccer during a global pandemic? Yes. But she trusted the protocols the league had put in place.

It’s a huge bummer knowing that Marta and her team can no longer be there. But it’s also… comforting. Orlando pulling out of the tournament shows that teams aren’t trying to bend the rules or sneak past regulations. Too many players on the Pride got the virus, so they simply can’t play. But players still in the Cup are ready for the challenge. In Caloprico’s words: “We’re dedicated, motivated, and we want to win this tournament.”

Let’s just hope everyone can stay healthy while doing so.