As autumn nears, the Spirit finally will play at home — but only twice and with no spectators and a roster missing those marquee players.
The novel coronavirus pandemic wiped out the National Women’s Soccer League regular season. A month-long summer tournament in Salt Lake City’s suburbs helped fill the void. Now, faced with an extended offseason, the league has arranged for the nine clubs, divided into three-team pods, to play four matches apiece — two home, two away.
The seven-week schedule will open Saturday afternoon with the Spirit hosting Sky Blue FC at Segra Field in Leesburg, one of the venues on its original home calendar. Washington also had planned to play this year at Audi Field in the District and Maryland SoccerPlex, its primary home the previous seven seasons.
Next year, the Spirit is slated to play seven times at 20,000-capacity Audi Field and five at 5,000-seat Segra Field.
Virginia’s reopening guidelines allow up to 1,000 fans at Segra Field this month, but for health and safety reasons, the Spirit will not invite spectators. Washington will also host the Chicago Red Stars on Sept. 12 in Leesburg, then visit Chicago on Sept. 26 and New Jersey-based Sky Blue on Oct. 3.
Without any playoffs, these 18 league games are essentially friendlies for teams to remain active a little longer. The 2021 season is not slated to begin until April.
“This has been a year from hell; 2020 has not been anyone’s favorite year,” Spirit Coach Richie Burke said in a conference call with reporters this week. “We’re trying to win games, but for managers like me, [the fall matches are] to do an assessment, an overview, a complete rundown and evaluate where our players are this year.”
At the Challenge Cup in Utah, each team played four first-round matches, then proceeded to the quarterfinals. (Orlando withdrew before traveling because of a coronavirus crisis.) The Spirit was eliminated in the quarterfinals by Sky Blue in a penalty-kick tiebreaker.
Washington resumed workouts three weeks ago without Lavelle, the most prominent of several NWSL players to head overseas, via permanent transfer or short-term loan.
She signed with Manchester City, as did U.S. teammate Sam Mewis (North Carolina Courage). Tobin Heath (Portland Thorns) and Christen Press (Utah Royals) are reportedly joining Manchester United. In need of a competitive season this fall, others around the league opted for loans to places such as Sweden and Germany.
Expecting Lavelle to remain overseas for more than a year, the Spirit traded her NWSL rights to OL Reign (Tacoma, Wash.) a few days before the Manchester City announcement. Washington received $100,000 in financial considerations and a 2022 first-round draft pick.
“I have never felt so low since my dad passed away, when Rose left,” Burke said. “Rose Lavelle is a football junkie. She just wants to play. She’d play on the side of a hill. She’d play on a field full of rocks.”
While some NWSL teams were hit hard by departures, no other Spirit players went overseas. However, Sullivan, a U.S. national team prospect from Lorton, Va., is three to four weeks from returning from a knee injury suffered at the Utah tournament. Defender Tori Huster is also injured.
The other pods will begin play next weekend. The Houston Dash, which won the summer tournament, is grouped with North Carolina and Orlando. Portland, Utah and OL Reign form the other pod.
Because of scheduling conflicts, Sky Blue will play home matches at Montclair (N.J.) State instead of Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J. Orlando had to move one home date from its downtown stadium to a suburban venue.
As part of its contract with the league, CBS will carry Saturday’s match, as well as four others on the national broadcast channel and two on CBS Sports Network.
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