The league and OL Reign held press conferences on Wednesday afternoon to discuss the logistics of the upcoming NWSL Challenge Cup, which was announced earlier in the day. The league call featured NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird, along with Utah Royals FC owner Dell Loy Hansen and Orlando Pride medical director Dr. Daryl Osbahr, while the OL Reign call included team CEO Bill Predmore and defender Lauren Barnes.
You can read about the specifics of the NWSL Challenge Cup in our initial story, but here are a few additional questions that were answered this afternoon on these media calls.
How did the tournament come together?
Planning for a tournament began over two months ago, soon after the league shut down as the coronavirus pandemic flared up around the country. The league quickly formed a medical committee which includes each team’s medical director, and they have been in regular contact with public health authorities in each team’s home market throughout to aid in the process of establishing the safety guidelines both for a return to team training and to determine best practices for what a return to play would look like.
How was Utah selected?
The league received four bids to host the tournament, but ultimately selected Utah due to the low COVID-19 case burden there, the logistics of having multiple dedicated training fields and stadiums available, and Hansen’s willingness to help underwrite expenses. Of particular note, Hansen has a stake in an Embassy Suites hotel near Rio Tinto Stadium, which the league will take over completely for the duration of the tournament, enabling each team to occupy a floor and treat the building as a tournament village.
What exactly are the testing / safety protocols?
Baird stressed that although the NWSL will be one of the first leagues to return to play in the United States, their priority has been on ensuring safety. “We’ve been guided by the mantra of not by being first, but by being safe.”
Hansen and Baird noted that the league has gone to great lengths to reduce risk of infection and make sure the tournament is as comfortable as possible for the players and staff. Everyone will undergo testing a few days prior to departing for Utah, again upon arrival, and will receive regular testing and symptom checks thereafter. Hotel staff will be limited, with cleaning staff coming once every four days. The hotel will have entertainment opportunities, such as ping-pong tables, as well as staff available to run errands and retrieve any necessary supplies. Finally, players with children will have the opportunity to bring their children and a caregiver along with them.
That said, the players will not be under lock-and-key. The league seems to realize that the players are adults and need to be given some freedom, and the expectation is that they will be responsible enough to look out for themselves, their teammates, and others around them. There are no specific rules in place for players or teams who violate social distancing guidance.
Dr. Osbahr noted that the league is being realistic about the potential for some positive test results, and has developed protocols to handle such a scenario. They expect to conduct robust contact tracing, testing, and quarantine to minimize risk of further exposures, and have been in communication with medical professionals from other leagues to help identify best practices.
OL Reign players have already been tested once, with a second round of testing to follow on Friday. Although there are significant concerns about access to testing in some parts of Utah, particularly in poorer and rural areas, the primary bottleneck appears to be one of connecting people in need with health care services rather than insufficient testing capacity. Hansen and the league have made assurances that the testing load required for the tournament will not have any negative impacts on access to testing or timeliness of test results for Utahns.
Any new roster rules for the tournament?
With a lot of games in a short period of time, roster rotation will be important both from a fatigue and an injury prevention standpoint. Predmore and Barnes spoke about that in some detail. Rotation also presents an interesting new strategic twist as teams will need to make decisions about who to play and when.
“Expect significant rotation from game to game,” Predmore said while offering an optimistic note for some of the Reign players who lacked minutes last season — either due to injuries or because they were fighting for competitive positions on the field. “Players who didn’t see a lot of time last year have chance to shine in this tournament.”
Another way the league is addressing concerns about the compressed time between games is by allowing teams to carry two additional players – up to 28 in total — as well as implementing the temporary new FIFA rules which allow 5 subs per game and 20 players on the gameday roster. Teams can have up to 40 players in camp for the next four weeks, but must submit final tournament rosters to the league by June 21.
How many players does OL Reign currently have?
Predmore noted that although the Reign currently have 24 players signed, they will invite about a half-dozen trialists into camp who could earn a spot, and also hope to announce two more signings in the coming week.
More new signings?
Indeed! Plus one sad departure (you’ll be missed, Steph Catley).
Are all the Reign players in Tacoma at this point?
Not every player has made it to Tacoma. Sofia Huerta and Darian Jenkins look to still be in their hometowns after returning from the W-League in March, and Megan Rapinoe remains in Connecticut.
One additional challenge for teams has been travel and immigration restrictions currently in place. Baird confirmed that the NWSL was among the professional leagues granted a waiver earlier this week by the US Department of Homeland Security, which should expedite the visa process for any players who are not yet in the country. For OL Reign, this includes Celia Jimenez Delgado, who Predmore noted has been in Spain and trying to get back to Tacoma for several weeks. Several other players from around the league are in a similar situation, and the league is working with an immigration attorney to expedite the process.
Any Reign players not reporting to the tournament?
Predmore said he has been in discussion with all players on the team with regards to the logistics of the tournament and also any health or safety concerns they might have that would preclude participating. He stressed that although not every player has committed to playing at this point, there is no pressure from the team for them to commit either way.
How will group training work?
Pierce County remains in Phase 1 of the state’s Safe Start plan, meaning that the Reign are unable to do any group activities at Cheney Stadium or elsewhere in Tacoma, although they have been able to do some individual training at Cheney Stadium. Effective today, Thurston County has been approved to move to Phase 2, so the team will start small-sided (5 player) drills at a location in that county as of Thursday. However, no location in Washington is likely to be cleared for full-team practices prior to the start of the tournament next month, so the Reign are making arrangements to travel to Utah as early as this weekend to continue preparations. For team travel, most teams are expected to use charter flights, and Dell Loy Hansen has loaned one of his private jets to the Reign for their transportation needs.
What happens after the tournament?
As of now, it remains undecided if the Challenge Cup will take the place of a 2020 regular season, or if there might be additional games to follow later in the summer or autumn. Baird noted that any decision on that front will be made between the league, the NWSL Players Association, and medical personnel, following best guidance available to protect the safety of the players and staff.
What is clear is that no games will be happening in front of a crowd, which is why Reign season ticket holders got news today about refund options for their 2020 season tickets.
Teams will be able to continue training through November, so even if there are no league games in home markets, there will be opportunities to play friendlies or even have a second tournament if conditions allow.
What about those new kits?
We weren’t given any promises on an exact date, but Predmore confirmed that the team will be revealing new home and away kits before the start of the tournament on June 27. He noted that the pandemic has caused some logistical and supply challenges which have delayed their unveiling.