The National Women’s Soccer League understood that being the first professional sports league in the U.S. to return to play during the COVID-19 pandemic would have its ups and downs.
The ups were obvious. For a league long starved for attention, the chance to be on the field alone in a nation desperate for live sports meant the spotlight finally would shine on the NWSL and its World Cup-winning stars. And it worked, with CBS making Saturday’s game between the North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns the first women’s club game to be shown live on a national broadcast network.
But the downs were just as obvious. The newfound attention meant any slip-ups heading into the month-long Challenge Cup in Utah also would play out on a national stage. That, too, came to pass when the Orlando Pride was forced to withdraw from the tournament Monday after six players and four staff members tested positive for the unique coronavirus.
The teams hadn’t even left for Salt Lake City and already the tournament was off track, with Orlando’s absence meaning the event would go on without Brazilian superstar Marta, a six-time FIFA world player of the year. The news got worse Tuesday when the remaining eight teams released tournament rosters that did not include national team stars Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath and Christen Press, who opted out because of COVID-19 concerns, and U.S. teammates Carli Lloyd and Mallory Pugh, who are injured.
U.S. captain Alex Morgan is out also after giving birth to her first child last month. Women who don’t participate in the tournament will still get paid, according to the labor deal the league and its players’ union negotiated last month.
“Being the first league doing this, if something goes wrong, other sports or leagues can learn from this,” Portland midfielder Rocky Rodríguez said. “But at the same time I think’s a great opportunity to get a lot of people to follow women’s soccer in the U.S.
“It’s exciting on one end and on another end, I guess, big risk, big reward. If we’re going to be the only tournament, hopefully it makes the league grow.”
The first lesson: Be flexible. When the Pride pulled out of the tournament less than six days before the first game, the NWSL had to completely redo the schedule. The Challenge Cup will begin with each team playing three first-round games to determine seeding for the elimination stages. All eight teams advance to the quarterfinals.
The championship game will be played July 26 and will be broadcast on CBS.
The NWSL was scheduled to kick off its eighth season April 18, riding a wave of momentum after the U.S. won a second consecutive Women’s World Cup in France last summer. All 23 players from that national team play in the NWSL and the league, which relies almost entirely on sponsorships and gate receipts for its revenue, was anticipating a breakout year.
Those plans were scraped when play was suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic in early March, just hours after the NWSL finished negotiating its landmark broadcast deal with CBS. However, the league and Lisa Baird, its first-year commissioner, were the first to come up with a return-to-play plan, with its May 27 announcement of the Challenge Cup beating MLS and the NBA by a week.
“We were able to get to this timing for two reasons,” Baird said in an interview with National Public Radio. “The first and the most important was we worked quite extensively to develop the right medical and safety protocols. We got to the point where we said, ‘OK, we’re ready to go.’ And then we began a phased-in approach to training.”
The league will quarantine its teams in an “NWSL Village” where players, officials and staff will undergo frequent COVID-19 testing. The 23-game tournament will be played behind closed doors. Teams will be able to carry 28 players on their rosters, two more than usual, and will be allowed two extra substitutions, for a total of five per game.
Half the league’s eight teams will play just four times during the tournament and none will have more than seven games in what will be the NWSL’s only competition of the year.