NWSL ready for 'big risk, big reward' as first U.S. team sports league to return amid pandemic

Portland Thorns midfielder Lindsey Horan expressed frustration that the NWSL hasn't been recognized as the first American team sports league to reopen after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down sports in March. (Photo by Daniel Bartel/ISI Photos/Getty Images).

The reporter’s question wasn’t actually about the NWSL being the first team sports league to return in the United States, but Portland Thorns midfielder Lindsey Horan needed to vent.

“It hasn’t really been put out there enough — there’s been a lot of social handles that haven’t said the NWSL is the first league back but have talked about all these other leagues besides us,” Horan said on a conference call Thursday. “It’s really frustrating. I don’t understand that.”

Horan, of course, is referring to the tendency of some sports personalities and media outlets to hype up July as the return of team sports because the NBA, MLB and MLS are all slated to resume

In reality, June will mark the return of professional team sports in this country. On Saturday, the NWSL will kick off a tournament called The Challenge Cup when the Thorns face reigning champs North Carolina Courage at 12:30 p.m. ET on CBS. 

The stadiums will be empty and the games will be the only time players are allowed to leave their hotels. The NWSL will be in action weeks ahead of the NBA and everyone else.

Now, with the one-month tournament slated to air on CBS and CBS All-Access, the eight-season-old NWSL is hoping that being first means it’ll be harder for pundits and social media influencers to forget about the league.

“It’s big risk, big reward,” said Thorns midfielder Rocky Rodriguez. “The fact that we’re the first ones, the other leagues could learn from our mistakes if they pop up. That’s the 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 going to be the only tournament around, hopefully it helps the league grow.”

COVID-19 infections and withdrawals

That is the high-wire act the NWSL is embarking on: reaping the benefits of being first while minimizing the risk as much as possible.

Having the sports calendar all to itself means having the undivided attention of anyone looking for contact team sports, which have been shut down in the United States since March. It also means the NWSL will become the first test case, figuring out how to navigate a fraught situation that no other American league has yet.

Some players didn’t want to be the guinea pigs or pioneers, depending how you look at it. U.S. women’s national team star Megan Rapinoe, one of the most famous soccer players in the country, opted out. Some other players also raised concerns about the risk of COVID-19 infection, and USWNT stars Tobin Heath and Christen Press also declined to participate.

“It was pretty tough for me at the very beginning,” said Horan, who will play in the tournament. “I wasn’t the most positive about it, to be honest. It was hard wrapping my head around it given what else is going on with the rest of the world. It’s hard to be selfish as a soccer player and say, ‘Well, I want to play so I don’t care.’

“We care, and we want to make sure this is not perceived in the wrong way,” she added. “This is huge and I’m positive about it and I think it’s going to be great for the NWSL.”

Before the tournament even started, the NWSL faced its first major COVID-19 controversy, a sobering reminder of the stakes involved. The Orlando Pride were forced to withdraw from the tournament Monday after a rash of asymptomatic positive tests two days before the team was set to arrive in Utah.

The story got messier from there in a reminder of how difficult it is to contain a never-before-seen virus.

Several players violated league protocols by going clubbing in Florida, sources told Yahoo Sports. Florida bars were reopened earlier than many parts of the country. Now, the state is experiencing a record-high number of infections.

Six players and four staffers tested posted for COVID-19 on Sunday, but upon re-tests Tuesday, some of them tested negative. Whether the players have COVID-19 or not is unclear — they will be tested again Friday — but it’s too late for Orlando to join the tournament. 

Even if one NWSL player tests positive during the tournament in Utah, that team risks being out of the tournament entirely, sources told Yahoo Sports. The games are happening too quickly — once every four days — and there’s not enough time to wait and determine if the virus has spread, which can take a week.

That’s what makes hosting the Challenge Cup such a daunting high-wire act: If one player breaks protocol and gets infected, it could be a house of cards ready to tumble. And even if players follow all the rules, the risk isn’t zero either.

“Regardless of every protocol under the sun, unless you’re going to hide in your room for a year, there’s always a probability, whether it’s a .1 percent probability,” Thorns coach Mark Parsons said. “So if you follow protocol and it still happens, that’s concerning. But if it’s not that — if players or staff in Orlando didn’t follow protocol and that’s how it happened — it’s disappointing.”

Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, will be one of two sites in the Salt Lake City area that will host the NWSL's Challenge Cup as the first American team sports league to return. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

A different ‘bubble’ atmosphere

This isn’t a normal road trip for NWSL players and staff. They are, in some sense of the word, trapped.

It’s not the strict bubble that had been talked about ever since sports leagues first explored trying to return during the pandemic. For instance, hotel staff in Sandy, Utah, will still come in and out. It’s still not the usual away-game experience.

One hotel is closed to outside guests and is filled with four NWSL teams — each on its own floor. The teams have access to the hotel pool, but they have to sign it out for the day to avoid cross-contamination. Other teams have similar accommodations.

In the absence of the usual outings to shop or dine out, teams will have access to Olympic Village-style communal spaces with video games, Jenga sets and pingpong tables. 

“We’re gonna have Wi-Fi — I think it could be worse, for sure,” Rodriguez said. “If anything, it could be mentally tiring. It can be tedious and what not, but it’s part of the challenge.”

Lisa Baird, the new NWSL commissioner who took charge in March, will be on-site in the bubble during the Challenge Cup. This tournament would be the first time she could meet any of the NSWL players in person — but safety protocols will make that difficult.

“I’m going to a tournament with 210 athletes and I am really sad that I won’t be able to meet any one of them — that is so hard,” Baird said Tuesday. “I can wave. Maybe I can socially distance. But even the little things you’d think would be so exciting to do — usually the commissioner gets to hand the cup to the athletes on the field and I don’t think I’ll be doing that.

“We’re being so careful and cautious because we want this to go off well.”

Teams just started arriving in Utah on Wednesday, and some won’t even land until Saturday, so it’s still early. The one harsh reminder of why everyone has gathered in Utah comes every two days, when players have to undergo testing where a long cotton swab is jammed deep inside their noses.

“I don’t think I will ever adjust to the testing,” Horan said, laughing. “For those of you that haven’t been tested, it’s terrible.”

The anxiety around COVID-19 is getting worse in the U.S., making testing all the more necessary. This week, the country hit a record high for new infections as many states have attempted to reopen after weeks of lockdown. The increase can’t just be explained by more testing — the rate of positive tests shows the spike in numbers is because the virus is spreading faster.

Asked about the recent explosion of new cases, Baird pointed out that the tournament, set to be played at Rio Tinto Stadium and Zions Bank Stadium, is outside of the hotbeds of new infections. Utah state officials list the sites of the tournament in yellow, meaning low risk.  

“The key is mitigating risk and making sure that we are staying within our environment and that we have the right plans in place, which we have with our positive testing protocol,” she said. “I’m confident it’s working based on our experience with Orlando.”

Being first matters to the NWSL, but it may be for naught if it’s not a safe success, too.

Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.

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