NWSL is coming back in a month, with the first (and hopefully last, in this format at least), NWSL Challenge Cup kicking off in Utah on June 27. All 9 teams will travel to Utah and live in a controlled environment as they play 25 games over the course of a month. There will be a group stage, followed by a knockout tournament to crown the champion.
That the league was able come to an agreement with all stakeholders — NWSLPA, UWSNTPA, U.S. Soccer and media rights holders CBS — is a pretty impressive feat. All players’ salaries have been guaranteed, even if they decline to participate in the tournament. The league’s health protocols are also very extensive, and have been made public. Teams are currently on different schedules to return to full training due to communities having varying Covid infection rates, but the affected sides are currently working on plans to train across county lines or travel to Utah early.
Personally, I would not be interested in this tournament if players felt pressured to play, had to make economic concessions, or were at a greater risk of contracting Covid-19 as a result of playing. With all of those issues adequately addressed, I feel comfortable talking about actual soccer for the first time in three months. And I have some concerns about the actual soccer.
Due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, teams will not get a full preseason before the Challenge Cup kicks off. The month of training they’ll get is about two weeks more than men’s Bundesliga players got, but it seems inevitable that teams are going to be rusty. In normal years, teams get 6-7 weeks of preseason, and play 3-4 full preseason matches before league play gets underway. NWSL is unlikely to benefit from being the first American professional sports league to return to play if the quality of play on the field is significantly worse than it is under normal circumstances.
Injuries could also be a problem, as the men’s Bundesliga restart has shown. Thankfully there have been no serious injuries, but players are picking up more nagging muscle injuries than usual. That’s a normal part of footballers working their way up to full fitness, but it’s a big problem during a six-game tournament. Coaches are going to need to quickly learn how to make best use of their 28 player rosters and the new five allowed substitutions.
NWSL clearly wants to take the opportunity to showcase its product to fans and sponsors while other sports are still hashing out their plans to return, but it’s going to take one heck of an effort for teams to be able to put their best foot forward.
Steph’s self-care corner
Friends, I just got Animal Crossing last week and already I am incredibly protective of my island, even though it’s a rough mess and I don’t have any kind of building or terraforming capabilities yet. I like it! I’ve planted some flowers a bit willy-nilly and I go around to my neighbors pretending I’m trying to foment unrest so we can form a tenants’ union and overthrow Tom Nook. It’s tickling my creative bone too, asking me to begin planning a small village layout, crossbreed flowers, or decorate furniture. It’s nice to make things, even virtually, and we could all use a little affirmation from time to time, even if it is from an exploitative tanuki.
In that vein, this week’s self care moment is a video from the Queen of Shitty Robots herself, Simone Giertz, as she makes a machine that pats you on the shoulder and tells you that it’s proud of you.
Community question: Who’s missing the knockout round?
Last season, there was a significant gap between NWSL’s bottom three and the teams contending for playoff places. But I feel like Reign FC have taken a step backwards this offseason, while every other team below them has improved. The gap between the 4th and 9th best team in NWSL is the smallest it’s ever been.
I think that the North Carolina Courage, Chicago Red Stars and Portland Thorns remain the top three, but it’s wide open beneath them. If I had to pick a team to finish 9th, I’d go with the Houston Dash, but I’m not hating on them at all. They got better this offseason and I wouldn’t be shocked to see them make the semifinal either.
Who do you think is going to be the team that finishes 9th in the group stage of the Challenge Cup and fails to qualify for the knockout round? Let us know in the comments below or reply on Twitter.