The National Women’s Soccer League announced on Wednesday its plan to start the 2020 season and become the first United States sports league to return to play.
The NWSL season, which never officially began due to the COVID-19 shutdown, will take the form of a 25-game tournament for the Challenge Cup, the NWSL’s yearly championship. All nine NWSL teams will play four games to determine seeding, then the top eight teams will advance to the quarterfinal knockout round.
The tournament will begin on June 27 and last for 30 days. The preliminary games and quarterfinals will be played at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah, and the semifinals and final will be played at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah. No fans will be allowed at any games.
U.S. Soccer, which recently won a dismissal of the USWNT’s equal pay lawsuit, released a statement supporting the NWSL’s plan.
“U.S. Soccer is supportive of the NWSL's decision to bring professional women’s soccer back to the field. Throughout the collaborative planning process, U.S. Soccer has worked closely with the NWSL and the USWNT Players Association to focus on the health and safety of the players, both regarding COVID-19 and the physical aspects of the players returning to a preseason and tournament competition, and ensure that each player would have the option of participating in the event. Everyone at the league and individual clubs have put in a tremendous amount of hard work to make sure the environment in Utah will be as safe as possible for all involved, and we are looking forward to the return of the NWSL as women’s soccer continues to grow and prosper."
Testing and quarantine protocols
The NWSL also released some plans for coronavirus testing. Players and staff who will be part of the traveling party to Utah will be tested weekly during the preseason. Another test will be required 48-72 hours before the date of travel to Utah, and that will include players, staff, children, and “caregivers.” No details about in-season testing were released, but it will reportedly include twice-weekly testing.
If a player or staff member tests positive, the NWSL’s plan is to immediately isolate that player from the team and put them into quarantine in their own living quarters. The entire team would be tested and contact traced, but not quarantined.
The New York Times reported that the NWSL is looking to partner with two hotels local to the stadiums to create a “NWSL Village,” in the hope that keeping players and staff semi-isolated will reduce the chances of contracting COVID-19.
Who will choose to play?
The NWSL Players Association worked alongside the NWSL to develop the plan, and released a statement about it on Wednesday.
While the NWSL and the NWSLPA are in agreement on the plan, it all hinges on the players being willing to participate in a compressed season on artificial turf. Yahoo Sports’ Caitlin Murray reported on Monday that a number of NWSL and USWNT players are not in favor of the Utah plan and could choose not to play.
In addition to concerns about getting sick in a semi-closed environment, players are also concerned about injuries and hospital availability. Older players and those who are still looking toward the 2021 Olympics are reportedly less supportive of the plan, while younger players hoping to break into international soccer are generally more in favor.
The USWNT Players Association released a statement about the start of the NWSL and the decisions that USWNT players face going forward.
The USWNTPA's top priority is player health and safety – both physical and mental. Consistent with that value, the USWNTPA and the USSF have agreed that each WNT Player may choose for herself whether to participate in the NWSL 2020 Challenge Cup, and the USWNTPA and the USSF will provide support to each Player in whatever decision she makes.
The USWNTPA will continue to work with the USSF, the NWSL, and the NWSLPA to minimize the risk of injury and exposure to COVID-19 for those Players participating in the tournament.
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