Ally Watt is a newcomer to the North Carolina Courage, having been selected sixth overall in the National Women’s Soccer League’s college draft back in January. Her new teammates have years of experience flourishing at the professional level, as many have played in — and won — Olympics, World Cups and NWSL titles.
But Watt has played on one rare stage that most other Courage players haven’t.
This past March in Australia — in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic — she played in a game without fans. And the contest was no exhibition; it was the Australian W-League’s Grand Final. Watt entered the match late and her Melbourne City FC squad won. Still, the scene was eerie.
“It was a little weird. The stadium was completely empty,” Watt said. “So, when I cheered on the sideline, I felt like my voice was echoing through the whole stadium. That was really weird. In sports, we really like to feed off the crowd’s energy and it was really hard to make that vibe ourselves.”
The rest of the North Carolina Courage players are about to find out what it’s like to play a professional game without any screaming supporters in attendance. On June 27, the Courage and seven of the other eight NWSL teams will converge in Utah for a 25-game tournament that will last about a month. The tournament is planned as a coronavirus alternative to the standard season. When the first game of the “Challenge Cup” kicks off — a match between the Courage and the Portland Thorns — it will make the NWSL the first team sport in North America to begin or resume play in the midst of the pandemic, creating a massive opportunity for women’s professional club soccer to grow its audience.
And just like any other season or tournament they enter, the mighty Courage expect to win it all.
“Once the tournament was announced, I think they’ve been fueled by the challenge,” Courage head coach Paul Riley said. “It’s go-time for them. We’re going to burn the boats once we get to Utah. Everybody is on a mission and I think they want to play their very best.”
While Riley is hopeful that there will be some sort of condensed 2020 NWSL season after these upcoming weeks in Utah, it is widely expected that this tournament alone will function as the league’s eighth annual campaign.
“Going into this as players we were told, ‘It’s this tournament or nothing,’” Courage goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé said. “As far as we know, there’s nothing in the plans for after.”
With the uncertainty of the pandemic, the “Challenge Cup” might be the Courage’s only chance to win a championship this year.
“Everyone is working really hard and showing that they really want this and that we’re taking this tournament very seriously,” Watt said.
The NWSL teams in the tournament — which includes every club except for the Orlando Pride — will each play four group stage-like games. From there, the teams will then begin a single-elimination competition, with the semifinals and final taking place at the Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah.
Lisa Baird, the NWSL’s first-year commissioner, officially stepped into the job on March 10. Most sports came to a stop within the next three days. Baird told reporters that solidifying plans for the tournament took more than two months of work, planning and negotiating with the NWSL Players Association.
According to The Athletic, pre-pandemic level salaries — without pay cuts — and health benefits for players were a non-negotiable item for the Players Association. With this guarantee, even if a player opts out of the tournament, her contract and benefits won’t be impacted. The union also secured housing and insurance coverage for its players, and accommodations for players with children.
“Safety was the top priority. The Players Association did a good job in trying to represent everyone in the league, which is always tough,” Labbé said. “They did the best with what they could. Obviously, there’s still some players that maybe aren’t fully sold on it and that’s completely their decision and their right. It’s a situation we’ve never been in before, so people are going to act differently.”
Among the high-profile players from around the league who have declined to play are World Cup Golden Boot winner and superstar Megan Rapinoe, and fellow U.S. national team forwards Christen Press and Tobin Heath.
No Courage players will be skipping the tournament. Riley’s side will head to Utah armed with seven women who played in last year’s World Cup.
On Monday, the Orlando Pride became the lone NWSL team to back out of the tournament completely after six players and four staff members tested positive for the coronavirus. The players who tested positive were asymptomatic, the team said, and their names were not revealed. According to the Orlando Sentinel, multiple players visited a bar recently. In Florida, bars have been open since early June, and the state is the seventh to pass 100,000 positive coronavirus cases. The league said in a statement that “no other positive tests have occurred” within the other eight clubs.
Since the league allowed small group training to resume in late May, the Courage haven’t been using the locker rooms at their facility in Cary, they haven’t been analyzing video or meeting indoors, they haven’t been sharing water bottles and each player is now responsible for doing their own laundry. Most of the Courage players live at an apartment complex near WakeMed Soccer Park, so the commute for a post-practice shower isn’t too far.
“They have to do things they maybe haven’t done before as professionals, but you know, that’s what people do in the real world,” Riley said. “You can’t just love the game when it’s all strawberries and cream. You have to love the game unconditionally.”
The Courage will travel to Utah via charter flight this Wednesday along with players and staff from the Washington Spirit. When the Courage arrive in Utah, they’ll be sequestered off to the “NWSL Village,” a bubble of sorts where teams will live, sleep, eat and hang out when they aren’t training or playing in games. When speaking to NPR’s “All Things Considered” Baird described it as “a beehive.”
“They’ll have us up in hotels and we’ll be confined to only being around our own team,” Labbé said.
As far as coronavirus testing goes, Labbé is expecting to be tested multiple times per-week; “basically” before and after every game, she said. Watt and Riley said last week that they’ve been tested four times already. Temperature checks will be daily, according to league protocols.
“We have to be very diligent with the cleaning of the equipment,” Watt said. “But our staff has been doing such a great job in keeping the protocols and making sure we’re following all the rules.”
Should a player test positive for the coronavirus in Utah while the tournament is underway, facilities will shut down immediately and contact tracing will begin. The player or staff member who tested positive will have to wear a mask and be isolated from the rest of the team. The player can return to meetings with the team after 10 days — if no symptoms have developed — and can begin training after 14 days if they are still asymptomatic.
The opportunity of being first
The NWSL will be the first professional team sport to play during the pandemic. It will have a jump on Major League Soccer — which will begin playing in Florida on July 8 — and the WNBA and NBA, which are both targeting late July start dates.
Despite their pioneering status during coronavirus, the NWSL has been overlooked. Just earlier this month, Baird was kept out of an ESPN series of interviews with pro sports league commissioners. But when the NWSL begins play, its games will be accessible to sports-starved viewers across the country. The spotlight is there for the NWSL to own. The question is, can they capitalize on the moment and find new fans who are thirsty for live sports?
“To be that first bit of live sports that’s going to be covered is huge,” Labbé said. “There’s going to be a lot of eyes on our league and I think that’s really good for women’s soccer in general, but also for this league moving forward.”
The tournament-opening game between the Courage and the Portland Thorns will air live on CBS on June 27 at 12:30 p.m. EST, making it the first-ever women’s club soccer game to air on major network television. The tournament final on July 26 will also air on CBS, while all other games will be streamed on CBS All Access and Twitch. The league has also secured new sponsorships from P&G, Secret and Verizon for the tournament.
“We just wanted to have a season and we wanted to make sure we gave our fans what they want. But looking at it now, this is a really good opportunity to make a statement for women’s soccer,” Watt said. “To be the first sporting league in North America to start is a big deal. I’m hoping we get a lot of support and fans to tune in and watch us because we’ve been working our butts off to get ready for this tournament.”
Will it feel like a championship win?
The Courage are well-positioned to win this tournament and have been a behemoth in the league for a few seasons.
Riley has led the Courage to championships in 2018 and 2019, the last three regular season titles — called the NWSL Shield — and a Women’s International Champions Cup win in 2018. And he has accomplished all of it with a lot of the same ultra-talented players at his side, like centerback and captain Abby Erceg, creative Brazilian midfielder Debinha, and the versatile and technically-gifted Crystal Dunn. The Courage have led the league in scoring in each of the past two seasons.
2019 was Labbé’s first season with the team. The Canadian had been out of the league for nearly two years, but needed an environment where she could focus on soccer and get ready for the World Cup. She won the starting job for the Courage, left for France to help lead Canada to the World Cup’s knockout stage, then returned and helped the Courage capture another championship.
The memory of celebrating that 4-0 win over the Chicago Red Stars in Cary is a vivid one. More than 10,000 fans attended the game, which ended with Courage players drenched in confetti and Budweiser.
If the Courage advance to the championship game of this tournament, no fans will be there to cheer them on. It won’t be the end to a long grueling season. Will it feel the same? Or will a win come with an asterisk?
“I think it’ll be a different feeling. It’s not the accumulation of an entire eight-month season, where you have to be consistent over a long period of time,” Labbé said. “This is about being consistent in a short period of time and getting results in a back-to-back way. There’s not much room for error in this type of tournament. Any type of hiccup could cost you.”
Riley was also skeptical about whether a win would come with the pride and glory of a traditional championship.
“I’m not sure how that’s going to feel. Obviously, we want to be successful,” Riley said. “Maybe after five weeks in Utah, I might be out of my mind and I might think it’s the greatest championship of all.”
Regardless of what the hardware says or means, it will still be a trophy. And at the end of July, the Courage would like to bring it back to North Carolina.