Megan Rapinoe and U.S. World Cup teammates Tobin Heath and Christen Press have opted out of the National Women’s Soccer League’s Challenge Cup tournament, which starts this weekend and will be the first U.S. team sport to resume since the novel coronavirus pandemic forced leagues to shut down in mid-March.
Rapinoe, the star of the national team’s championship last summer in France, did not immediately offer a reason Tuesday as her club, OL Reign of Tacoma, Wash., announced its roster for the event. She has not practiced with the team since the league’s training moratorium was lifted this month.
“Megan let us know that she has decided not [to] play in the tournament,” Reign chief executive Bill Predmore said in a statement. “Like all NWSL players, she was given the option to participate. … We understand and respect her decision.”
Rapinoe’s decision was not a surprise. Early this month, Reign Coach Farid Benstiti told French publication Le Progrès that Rapinoe would sit out.
“It’s a shame,” Benstiti said. “I understand her motivations, but I am disappointed and frustrated.”
Press of the Utah Royals and Heath of the Portland Thorns were clear with their reasons.
“It is deeply painful not to be able to play the game I love, and to watch the broader effects of the global pandemic on our league, sports and our world,” Press said in a statement. “Regrettably, given the uncertainty created by covid-19, I must elect not to participate in this tournament. I know how fortunate I am to be able to make this choice. I have enormous respect and gratitude for those who do not have the luxury to choose whether to report to work.”
Heath echoed those sentiments, saying, “Although I want to be on the field with my teammates doing what I love, because of the uncertainty and risks created by covid-19, I have chosen not to participate.”
Players and team personnel will live in a controlled environment to minimize the threat of contracting the virus. They will be tested regularly.
Several other national team players will not participate, but for other reasons.
Sky Blue FC’s Carli Lloyd (knee) and Mallory Pugh (hip) are injured. Alex Morgan, Ali Krieger, Ashlyn Harris and Emily Sonnett are members of the Orlando Pride, which on Monday withdrew from the tournament after six players and four staff members tested positive for the coronavirus. (Morgan would not have played anyway after giving birth last month.)
Most U.S. national team players are not employed by the league or its teams. Rather, they are under contract with the U.S. Soccer Federation, which subsidizes the NWSL. Under an agreement between the USSF and the national team players’ union, they will continue to be paid, regardless of whether they compete in the tournament. All other NWSL players, through a separate union, have a similar agreement with the league.
Every player on the Washington Spirit will participate, the club announced.
The absence of nine well-known U.S. players — as well as Brazilian superstar Marta (Orlando) — is a setback for a league seeking to take advantage of the void in live sports. The Challenge Cup opens Saturday in greater Salt Lake City and runs until July 26.
Orlando’s withdrawal forced the league to rework the schedule. Each of the eight participating teams will play four first-round matches for seeding purposes, followed by the quarterfinals.
Originally scheduled to play its first game June 30 against Utah, Washington will now face the Chicago Red Stars at 10 p.m. Saturday. The Spirit also will play the defending NWSL champion North Carolina Courage on July 1, Portland on July 5 and the Houston Dash on July 12. Initially, it was to have played Utah, OL Reign, Portland and Houston.
CBS will show the opening match Saturday (North Carolina vs. Portland, 12:30 p.m.), as well as the final. Never before has a U.S. women’s soccer league game appeared on major over-the-air national TV. CBS’s digital platform will show all of the other matches, and CBS Sports Network will re-air games. No spectators will be allowed at the two stadiums in use — in suburban Herriman and Sandy, Utah.
MLS will relaunch July 8 with a 26-team tournament near Orlando, and the NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball and the WNBA are planning to start play later this summer.
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