The National Women’s Soccer League is closer to returning to competition than any other U.S. team sport, but with clubs cleared to practice this weekend and a summer tournament in Utah in the works, many U.S. national team players are uncertain about participating because of health concerns.
The league, as first reported by The Washington Post last week, is planning to resume play in June and July with a World Cup-style event in a “controlled environment” in greater Salt Lake City. It would be a precursor to possibly launching the regular season in home markets late this summer or in the fall.
However, “most women’s national team players haven’t decided whether to attend and are considering the plan given the serious challenges and health risks that are associated,” said a person familiar with the group, who requested anonymity because the players have yet to address the matter publicly.
Given the unique circumstances, all players in the nine-team league were given the option of not participating, multiple people said.
The absence of several popular players would be a serious blow to the league, which is aiming to take advantage of the team sports void in the United States by playing a series of matches over several weeks, culminating with playoffs in late July, shown live on CBS Sports platforms and online on Twitch.
Were that to happen, the NWSL would return to action before Major League Baseball, MLS and the NBA and NHL. MLS, as first reported by The Post two weeks ago, is planning to house all 26 teams at a Disney resort in Orlando starting next month and conduct a month-long tournament in July.
Spokeswomen for the NWSL and the unions representing the NWSL players and national team players said they did not want to comment.
How many national team players would skip the tournament is unclear. Over the weekend, one person close to the situation said seven of the 23 World Cup players, including five regular starters, had declined.
Another said five were definitely out and many others were unsure. Another said the number fluctuates almost daily and some could change their minds, one way or the other.
Forward Alex Morgan (Orlando Pride) seems unlikely to play after giving birth to her first child May 7. The league also features World Cup standouts Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign), Rose Lavelle (Washington Spirit) and Julie Ertz (Chicago Red Stars).
The league had been hoping to announce tournament details late last week, but the uncertainly surrounding its highest-profile players has apparently contributed to the delay.
Last week the NWSL requested teams submit traveling rosters and lists of essential personnel. Plans call for teams to stay in a hotel in the Salt Lake City area or the youth academy dormitory at the Real Salt Lake training center in the suburb of Herriman. Players would undergo regular medical exams and coronavirus testing, and they would not circulate in the general public.
Matches would be played at a small stadium in Herriman and at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, home to MLS’s Real Salt Lake and the NWSL’s Utah Royals. The league was working on plans to allow a small number of spectators to attend.
As the NWSL attempts to finalize tournament plans, it announced Monday that teams could begin training in groups of eight, subject to local and state guidelines and league safety protocol. The league also said, beginning Saturday, it would allow teams to conduct full practice sessions, though limits on large gatherings remain in place in many places.
Before this week, teams were allowed to open their training facilities for individual workouts only.
“Following the advice and counsel of our medical advisors, the NWSL is pleased to be taking the next steps to safely return to competition,” NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird said in a statement.
Local guidelines have prevented the Spirit from using its usual training base, Maryland SoccerPlex in Montgomery County, and other potential venues in the D.C. metro area. The team opted for private land in Haymarket (in Virginia’s Prince William County) for individual workouts and an undisclosed location in Maryland for group sessions.
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