A sports fan’s favorite words were uttered Friday.
“Did you catch the game?” Lisa Baird said, cutting through the customary pleasantries in a phone conversation to ask the important questions. In her first year as commissioner of the National Women’s Soccer League, Baird pioneered a plan to return to competition amid the global coronavirus pandemic.
Friday was that moment of normalcy passionately sought across the sports landscape ever since the professional leagues shut down in riptide in March – witnessing an awe-inspiring game and eagerly wanting to talk about it.
To open NWSL’s Challenge Cup knockout rounds, the Portland Thorns FC upset the defending champion North Carolina Courage 1-0. Keeper Britt Eckerstrom, getting the nod due to injuries, made eight saves, including punching a free kick from one of the world’s best over the net in the 79th minute.
“Oh my God!” Baird said after watching the match at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah. “The goalie played just lights-out soccer. It was just incredible.”
The eight-team tournament continues Saturday with quarterfinal play between third-seeded OL Reign (1-1-2) and sixth-seeded Chicago Red Stars (1-2-1). Kickoff is at 7 p.m. PT, and the match will air on CBS All-Access in the U.S. and Canada.
Potentially missing from the Reign starting lineup could be forward Bethany Balcer. The league’s 2019 Rookie of the Year shed light on what it’s like to be a flash of brilliance when sequestered with teammates the past two months to protect against a virus that’s killed more than 141,000 U.S. residents and caused nearly 52 million unemployment claims nationwide.
Balcer, who scored the team’s lone goal in the tournament, was shown gasping for air on the sideline of the Reign’s scoreless draw against the Thorns on Monday. She posted on Twitter afterward that she suffered from a panic attack, needing an hour to lower her heart rate.
“It’s really really tough to stay mentally sharp and healthy in an environment like this one,” wrote Balcer, who was substituted off the field in the 40th minute. “I know for me I have hit an emotional wall and it sucks ’cause it affects how you play no matter how hard you try to push through it.”
NWSL carved out an area in the Salt Lake City suburbs where the teams sleep, train, eat and compete. Family and friends aren’t permitted to visit, and fans aren’t permitted into the stadiums. There’s social distancing with those outside a team’s delegation, and everyone is frequently tested.
The measures, Baird believes, have helped keep the NWSL from reporting any positive cases for COVID-19 since teams began arriving mid-June. The Orlando Pride withdrew June 22 due to multiple positive test results while still in Florida.
But playing in a mostly empty 5,000-seat stadium where fans are only virtually visible on two massive screens, masks on everyone not playing and press conferences via videoconference calls, it’s difficult to forget about the pandemic. There’s also 90-degree weather and altitude for the players to contend with after nearly four months of being quarantined across the globe.
In addition to paying a player’s full salary if they wanted to opt-out of the tournament, Baird said considerations for mothers were made. Baird also pulled from her former position as chief marketing officer of the United States Olympic and Paralympic committee for ways to accommodate delegations with varying needs.
“I’m so proud of all of our players and how transparent they’ve been with talking to and reaching out and connecting with people with their own vulnerabilities,” Baird said. “Bethany is particularly courageous and important because mental health is still something that we don’t talk about.”
While the NWSL is the first U.S. professional sports league to hold a playoff, the NBA, WNBA, Major League Baseball and Major League Soccer are in the midst of resuming their respective seasons — MLB being the only one to not sequester the entire league in one isolated location.
Sounders FC coach Brian Schmetzer has been impressed with MLS’s testing facilities and process. The league hasn’t reported any positive cases since FC Dallas and Nashville SC withdrew last week.
Outside of media questions regarding the pandemic, players like midfielders Nico Lodeiro, Cristian Roldan and Kelvin Leerdam feel comfortable and safe playing in the MLS is Back Tournament despite it being in Florida — the new COVID-19 epicenter.
Reign goalkeeper Casey Murphy said via videoconference call with media Friday that “team meals, team walks, movies and film” help in adjusting to isolation.
“It’s always difficult if you don’t have freedom to do what you want to do in your own space,” Leerdam said via videoconference. “All of these little things play into (performing).”
For the NWSL on Friday, all of the little things added up to an instant-classic match between Portland and North Carolina — something U.S. sports fans missed for nearly four months. NWSL plays its championship match July 26 on CBS.
“We’re seeing the fan reaction a lot on social media,” Baird said. “That’s been really delightful.”