The National Women’s Soccer League became the first American team sport to come back during the pandemic June 27, when its highest-rated match ever kicked off the 2020 season.
While the return attracted attention unparalleled in league history, that doesn't mean the transition was easy.
“I think in the beginning, it was just like a shock to be like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re going to have to get on a plane and like go to this different location and in the midst of a pandemic,’” Sky Blue attacker and former Blue Devil star Imani Dorsey said. “Nobody’s had to do that before.”
Transitioning from months of quarantine into an 11-on-11 contact sport could certainly be a bit of an adjustment, especially as the coronavirus pandemic worsens in several states. Dorsey described being “stuck in quarantine vibes,” but for OL Reign midfielder Rebecca Quinn, that move wasn’t too much of an issue.
“It’s a little bit different from what we’re used to, but I think for everyone, it’s been surprising how quickly we’ve adapted, like both our bodies and just minds, to get back into full professional quality soccer,” Quinn, who was teammates with Dorsey in Durham from 2014 to 2017, said. “I think it’s similar [to] when coming back from an injury—there’s a lot of uncertainty around whether you’ll be in top form back on the pitch, but I think it takes a shorter amount of time than everyone thinks it does.”
Many NWSL players were told about the ongoing tournament a couple of months before first kickoff, such as midfielder Ella Stevens of the Chicago Red Stars, who got a couple of weeks notice before beginning four weeks of training in Chicago. A 2020 draftee, Stevens made her first professional start July 1 against the Portland Thorns.
"I think the tournament’s given us, especially like the rookies and new players, a great opportunity to play, because you have a game and then three or four days of rest and recovery and then another game,” Stevens said. “So they need to call on more players, just because you don’t want people to get injured, you don’t want people to do too many minutes. So I think it’s kind of been a blessing in disguise...I don’t think I would have started the second game of a Chicago Red Stars [season] if this were a regular season.”
Rest isn’t the only thing affecting playing time for women across the league. With many stars opting out of playing, rehabbing injuries or staying overseas, players like Dorsey and Quinn are also looking at more opportunities on the pitch this year.
Players aren’t feeling too much pressure from extra playing time or the increased importance of every game in this shortened season, though. Their main concern is the ongoing pandemic.
“I love soccer, and it’s now my job, and there’s nothing I’d rather be doing. But at the same time, there are more important things happening right now,” Stevens said. “I think coming back and playing, it’s given me and the rest of the team and the entire league a platform to talk about these things, like the Black Lives Matter movement. As for the coronavirus, it’s tough… I mean, yes, there are more important things, and this can’t be done lightly. And I don’t think it has been. But for sure, soccer isn’t everything. I don’t think sports are everything. And the second that it’s not safe, I don’t think it’s worth moving forward with.”
Thankfully, the NWSL has implemented well-regarded guidelines and practices for their bubble. Those were first tested when Washington Spirit defender Tegan McGrady was rushed to a nearby hospital for fear of a dislocated jaw. By all accounts, PPE was worn by everyone involved, allowing her a seamless transition from the match to the hospital and back to the bubble.
“The league has gone over with us many, many times on the protocols that are going to be in place. We've been doing testing weekly since we started training, getting back together as a team, and it always is a very nice feeling when they tell you that it's negative,” Dorsey said. “We’re going to be in a pretty locked-down bubble. From what they’re explaining to us, we’re really not going to be anywhere other than our training facility, or our hotel room…. A lot of that makes me feel a lot better, because I feel like if I do what I can do and kind of control the people I interact with, then I'm in a good situation…. If I were to catch it, I know that I’m surrounded by people who would be making sure I am okay and that's also very comforting.”
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As of this article, the NWSL Challenge Cup has gone over two weeks without any trouble with the bubble, despite initial questions about a bubble’s efficacy. The NHL and NBA are undoubtedly watching Salt Lake City and taking notes. Adapting to new conditions will be a much different proposal in other sports, though, as Quinn noted that they are "already pretty well adapted to showing up when there’s not a sold out crowd.”
For now, players are relishing the chance to get back out on the pitch, in front of beautiful sunsets and their leaguemates in the stands.
“Each game that we’re playing I'm really excited about,” Dorsey said. “I'm bummed we’re not playing Chicago, because I want to see my teammate Ella Stevens, but for that reason I’m really happy to play Houston, because [former Blue Devil teammate] Kayla McCoy will be there. I kind of favor those games, just to see my Duke players.”