It’s rare to stump a veteran soccer player like Lu Barnes about her sport.
But aside from excitement, it’s hard to know what to expect as the National Women’s Soccer League debuts its season with the Challenge Cup in Utah. The defending league-champion North Carolina Courage will kick off the 23-game tournament with a match against the Portland Thorns on Saturday.
The matchup will air at 9:30 a.m. PT on CBS from a fan-less Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, a suburb outside of Salt Lake City. Barnes and her OL Reign will open play against the Sky Blue FC on Tuesday.
“Everything is going to look different,” said Barnes, a defender, via phone Wednesday. “It’s not a normal season where you can say, OK, this is probably their starting 11, their style is going to be this or whatever it is. There are so many unknowns when it comes to a tournament style.”
The NWSL delayed the start of its season due to the coronavirus pandemic. Now it’s the first U.S. professional team sport to hold competitive games amid the outbreak. The NWSL created a bubble to house its teams with strict testing protocols, but before play began, the Orlando Pride dropped out this week due to six players and four staff members testing positive for COVID-19.
Salt Lake County, where the NWSL based play and training, reported 319 new positive cases Thursday, according to the state’s department of health. Of Utah’s 166 coronavirus-related deaths, 106 were from Salt Lake County.
“The fact that a women’s league in America is the first to make it back when we don’t have billions and billions of dollars behind us speaks volumes,” Reign midfielder Jess Fishlock said via phone Wednesday. Utah Royals FC owner Dell Loy Hansen contributed about $700,000 and use of his team’s facilities to offset costs.
“With society having to refresh, hopefully they’ll tune in and be more appreciative of women athletes,” Fishlock continued.
The Reign moved its base from Tacoma to Missoula, Montana, to hold full-team training the past month and will travel to Utah on Saturday. Participation is voluntary, and Reign captain Megan Rapinoe is the sole player on her team’s roster who won’t play.
Not that the rest of the lineup is easily recognizable. The charter club underwent changes from ownership to players during the offseason and through quarantine.
The OL Group, a parent company of Olympic Lyon in France, purchased the Reign last fall. In January, the Reign announced Farid Benstiti as coach, replacing Vlatko Andonovski, who now heads the U.S. women’s national team. And the Reign acquired big-time players like forward Nicole Momiki, who starred for Japan’s national team, and forward Sofia Huerta and defender Amber Brooks via a trade with the Houston Dash.
Back from season-ending injuries in 2019 are Fishlock (knee), forward Jasmyne Spencer (knee) and goalkeeper Michelle Betos (Achilles).
Benstiti is expected to change the lineup more than usual as the tournament format has teams playing a match every four days in the preliminary round. The teams will be seeded for the knockout rounds, which begins July 17. The championship is July 26 at Rio Tinto Stadium and will air nationally on CBS.
“We have to try to fill a gap without Megan, which is going to be very difficult,” Fishlock said. “What we do have is seven very good players (up front) who are capable in their own right of giving us something, whether it be assisting or goals, and they fit into the style of play we want.
“One thing over the last couple of years that we have not been able to do is have different type of players play different type of roles and create different types of tactics. We’ve been predictable sometimes. We’re going to have more versatility and a different vibe.”
Fishlock and Barnes said Rapinoe is in contact with the team despite not joining them for training or the tournament. Rapinoe served as a virtual host for the ESPYs on Sunday and is entrenched in social-justice work.
The Reign did play the majority of its 2019 season without its star due to Rapinoe leading the USWNT to the World Cup title and being injured. The club finished fourth overall, losing in the playoff semifinals to the Courage.
“Bringing sports back and being in the team environment, you get that natural buzz,” Barnes said. “It’s becoming a reality, and we’re super-excited to get some games going and seeing what our team has to offer.”