The NWSL Challenge Cup is now less than a week away, with the tournament getting underway at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, when the Portland Thorns face the North Carolina Courage. Players and fans alike are happy to get back to soccer, but we have to acknowledge that a lot of people are wondering if we should be playing soccer at all. Let’s talk why that’s the case and the state of the world before we get into roster moves and tactics.
A handful of players will be sitting out for various personal and health reasons. COVID-19 cases are on the rise again, both across the United States in general and in the tournament’s host state of Utah. And in the basketball world, some NBA and WNBA stars have asked if the return of sports will be more of a distraction from important social issues like systemic racism and police brutality than they are a platform for athletes to speak out about those issues.
The good news is that NWSL has come a very long way from the days of former Washington Spirit owner Bill Lynch attempting to silence Megan Rapinoe’s protest. Owners and coaches have been very clear that they will not attempt to suppress anyone’s freedom of expression, while acknowledging that they need to do more to support their Black players and staff, as well as the Black communities in their home cities. Many Black people are understandably past the point of being able to trust any company’s word on anything, but hopes are high that the league will amplify Black people’s voices going forward and become a better ally in the fight against racism.
COVID-19 remains as big of a problem as it was when the original NWSL schedule was nixed, but players are probably safer from the disease in an isolated, quarantined environment than they are in their home markets. While several players do not feel that participating in the Challenge Cup is right for their personal well-being, more players want to find a way to play soccer safely, and at publishing time, no one in NWSL has publicly stated that they do not believe the tournament should be held.
I am among those extremely worried about this tournament. I’m worried about a COVID-19 outbreak that prevents the tournament from being completed and causes health complications for players that damage their long-term careers. I’m worried about a player’s expression of their opinion on race or politics being handled incorrectly. I’m worried about players getting injured because of the shortened preseason.
But a majority of players want to play. Coaches are preparing their players to play a competitive tournament, and have told me that their teams want to win. Women’s sports are in a constant struggle to be taken seriously as sports, even by their own business partners. So, despite the pit in my stomach from thinking about all of the ways that the Challenge Cup could go wrong, I am going to write about NWSL in the way I was planning to write about it in February, when the world was a much different place.
Over the next month, All For XI will tell stories about what sports can do to fight racism, the mental health challenges of living in quarantine, and the problems presented by holding a sports tournament during a pandemic. I think everyone is in universal agreement that those stories are more important than on-the field-stories right now. But the athletes also deserve to be taken seriously as athletes, so I felt the need to deliver a preview series doing just that.
From reading the insights from the teams’ head coaches and local beat reporters for each team, as well as data from StatsBomb, I hope you feel better equipped to understand and enjoy what happens during the games.
Team previews will be linked below as they’re posted. They’re only in this order based on when each team’s coach was available for an interview.