Extensive testing protocol at core of NWSL's tournament return plan
Players will stay in 'athlete village,' undergo COVID-19 and antibody tests
As the National Women's Soccer League prepares to become one of the first North American leagues to return amid the coronavirus pandemic, testing and tracing are at the core of its plans.
Because of the league's size, with nine teams overall, the logistics needed to protect players are less daunting than those faced by bigger leagues such as the NBA or Major League Baseball, whose seasons remain in limbo.
Sixteen Canadians play in the league, including longtime national team members Christine Sinclair (Portland Thorns FC), Sophie Schmidt (Houston Dash) and Diana Matheson and Desiree Scott (Utah Royals FC).
The league also consulted the NWSL players' association, as well as U.S. Soccer and the national team players' union, to address athlete concerns. The result is an extensive testing protocol that has been published on the league's website.
The protocol covers pre-tournament and in-tournament testing and wellness checks, as well as how to handle positive tests. Players will undergo both COVID-19 and antibody tests.
Tests will be conducted by ARUP Laboratories, a non-profit organization connected with the University of Utah, and the league's insurance will cover costs. Utah Royals owner Dell Loy Hansen emphasized the tests would not be taken from the supply for Utah residents.
Opt-out for players
Players who test positive will be quarantined and contact tracing will determine high- and low-risk exposures. The protocol doesn't address whether a certain number of positive tests would halt the tournament.
Players can opt out of the tournament if they have concerns. The players' union negotiated and won salary guarantees and insurance for all players — regardless of whether they play in the tournament or not.
The union represents non-allocated players in the league. Allocated national team players, including members of the U.S. team that won the World Cup last summer, are represented by their own union. Salaries for the national team are paid by U.S. Soccer.
The players will be kept in what Commissioner Lisa Baird called an "athlete village" for the duration of the Challenge Cup, which runs through July 26. The facilities, which are used by the NWSL's Royals and Major League Soccer club Real Salt Lake, include a stadium and several training fields. The league's 230 players and support staff will be housed either in complex dormitories or a hotel.
Increased subs for decreased injury risk
In addition to testing, players had also expressed concerns about training in advance of the tournament, and that some games would be played on artificial turf at Zions Bank Stadium.
Houston Dash coach James Clarkson confirmed the league was looking at allowing five substitutes per game to help teams navigate player fatigue and reduce injuries. The International Football Association Board, which sets soccer's rules, agreed to let teams use two extra substitutes per match when soccer resumes. FIFA had requested the temporary rule change because schedules could be more congested as teams try to make up for lost time.
"First and foremost, it always had to be about health and safety. So whether that was surrounding I mean, obviously mainly around COVID-19, but also around ramping us up from sitting on our couches for two months to playing a game in five weeks. There was a lot of talk about how best to do that. Is it long enough preseason? Is there enough precaution for that?" said Portland Thorns defender Emily Menges, who is on the union's executive board.
"And so I think we got to a good place of a five-week buildup, which I know I'm comfortable with. Some players, coming off injury I know weren't, but the clubs will individually work with those players. But yes, from the very start, it's been all focused around health and safety," she said.