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The National Women’s Soccer League is closing in on a significant, albeit precarious milestone.
On June 27, the NWSL will become the first major American sports league to resume after the coronavirus shutdown in March. It will be a moment full of promise, but not without risk.
With the stage all to itself—at least for 10 days until MLS also restarts play—the heightened attention on the NWSL could be a godsend. Or, if things go south, it could prove disastrous.
The 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup will feature all nine of the league’s teams, including the Washington Spirit, taking part in a round-robin competition near Salt Lake City, Utah, followed by a knockout tournament. It’s still unclear if the games, which will all be played behind closed doors, will represent the entire 2020 season or if the NWSL will return in the fall.
As COVID-19 continues to tear through the United States, there remain significant questions about the feasibility of professional sports returning. The NWSL is doing all it can to ensure the Challenge Cup is safe, but there can be no guarantees in this pandemic—only efforts to mitigate risk.
The league has instituted strict testing protocols, with all players and team staff subject to frequent screening for coronavirus as well as antibody tests. All players and team staff will be staying at a single facility, only leaving for training and matches.
Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University, believes that the league has put forward a plan that is as judicious as possible.
“It seemed to me as though they were proceeding in a very prudent, careful fashion,” Schaffner tells City Paper. “This is not going to be absolute confinement but they’re going to try and protect the people inside the bubble from as much outside contact as possible. That’s entirely consistent with what we know about COVID because it’s spread as a respiratory virus from close contact between people. If we can keep people separate from each other this is entirely akin to sheltering at home, and that’s what they intend to do.”
Still, there is a possibility, even a probability, that a player will test positive during the tournament. That player will almost certainly have come into contact with several other players—either in training or a game. Quarantining the positive case is mandated in that situation, as is contact tracing and testing. But will that be enough?
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The league must be ready for the possibility of a spate of cases. Dr. Daryl Osbahr, a member of the NWSL medical task force, was asked on a conference call if there’s a number of cases that would shut the Challenge Cup down.
“Certainly all of us do realize that there can be multiple positives, but our protocols will help us deal with them in the safest possible manner,” Osbahr said. “But we can’t really try to anticipate or foresee what numbers would be possible to potentially shut something like this down.”
If any players have frayed nerves heading into the Challenge Cup, it would be entirely understandable. That is why participation in the tournament is strictly optional. After protracted negotiations, the league’s players association was able to secure guaranteed pay and benefits for every player in the league—whether they play in the Challenge Cup or not.
“I think that’s a show of good faith for [the league] to really support the players during this time, and the ownership groups backed that as well,” says Spirit defender Tori Huster, who also serves as president of the NWSL Players Association. “And then it’s just a matter of having the protocols in place to make every player feel safe that is going to play.”
The Beehive State was selected in part because Utah Royals owner Dell Loy Hansen is providing the housing for players, but also because the state was weathering the coronavirus crisis better than many others. Recently, though, that hasn’t been the case.
Utah’s rate of positive tests for coronavirus is currently rising faster than every state except for three, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, and this week, the number of hospitalized patients reached the highest level the state has experienced since the beginning of the pandemic.
According to Schaffner, an increase in cases shouldn’t be a major concern for NWSL, as it was likely priced in already with businesses all over the country reopening. More importantly, the enclosed environment should help teams mitigate any external conditions.
“I don’t [think the surge is a cause for concern] because these upsurges that are occurring around the country were entirely expected and must have been anticipated when the planning took place,” Schaffner says. “The trick will continue to be to shelter as much as possible the people in the bubble: the players, the trainers, the coaches and everyone else immediately associated with the teams.”
The surge in Utah, though, is yet another speed bump in a road filled with them. The NWSL has plenty to gain in the Challenge Cup, but the risk is real. The league is about to find out if it’s worth it.