• Brianna LeBlanc

The NWSL and its Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Tournament

I will be the first to admit that I miss sports. It not only ensures I have something to complain about, it also helps with my anxiety. But I don’t miss it to the point where I’m okay with the NWSL holding a summer tournament in a state that is drowning in so many COVID-19 cases that top health officials have called for the state to re-close.

On Monday, June 22nd, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that during the past week alone, the state was averaging 470 new daily cases: "'We are quickly getting to a point where the only viable option to manage spread and deaths will be a complete shutdown,' warns a memo that Dr. Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist, distributed Friday to state and local health officials."

This is alarming to hear alone, but when you combine that with the fact that Utah will be hosting 20 plus players and numerous staff. No one has ever accused the NWSL front office of being the most self-aware organization, but for goodness sake. This is a bad idea! I do want to clarify though, having this tournament isn’t the bad idea. It’s having it in the SUMMER tournament. In UTAH.

Let’s recap for a moment; May 27th was the date that the league would be the first American league to resume play with the 2020 Challenge Cup. If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you may have thought “summer tournament? That sounds risky.” Because it is. And if you thought “Utah? Why Utah?”

Money. And space.

In the press release sent out by the league, it states the tournament will be “hosted by Dell Loy Hansen, owner of Utah Royals FC, who will accommodate all housing, training, and competition needs for the league’s nine teams and create an ‘NWSL Village’ to control as much of the environment as possible.”

In a May 28th article from Deseret News, Hansen says that he “just kind of opened the checkbook” to provide whatever people will need, from food to training equipment to leisure activities within the village. That will also include care for children whose mothers will be involved in the tournament. It would’ve been nice if he could’ve done that for the staff members of Real Salt Lake. Instead, RSL player Nedum Onuoha made the surprising effort to help 90 staff members who had been furloughed by sending them money that he and two other players and staff members helped raise. The Salt Lake Tribune reported on May 13th that "Onuoha, with some help, made a list of people within the organization who had lost their jobs. He gathered details about their positions within RSL. If those [weren’t] easily attainable, they searched online to ascertain those details.


"Once the relevant information was gathered, Onuoha et al. contacted each person, convinced them he wasn’t running a con, got their addresses and sent them checks. He estimated the total to be around 90 employees that received money."


Onuoha has been with the club since 2018 and he said this in his interview: "It’s a tough time... a lot were caught off guard with the furloughs and some weren’t happy with how it all came about. But the club is one where people don’t come here or stay here because of how much money they can make but because they enjoy being here."


I love a feel good story as much as the next, but the fact that Hansen furloughed his own staff members but has no problems opening his pocketbook to fund an entire tournament is very interesting. It's a story that many are used to seeing in reverse; a team owner bankrolling an entire MLS tournament while furloughing the female team and staff members. So, based on this, maybe women's soccer has made it in America.

If the idea of a “village” where 200 plus players will all be together doesn't sound silly enough, Hansen also claimed “with the efforts of our frontline workers, our state’s early adoption of prevention measures, and our facilities at Zions Bank Real Academy, Rio Tinto Stadium, and American First Credit Union Field, Utah is uniquely prepared to host the nine teams in the NWSL.”

Oh?

In March, when the country begin to realize this was more than a super-flu, the Utah governor declared a state of emergency very early on and a response team was put together soon after. By April, they were testing an extraordinary amount of citizens and managing to keep their problems relatively low for the area. Through out the month of April, they had some deaths and confirmed cases begin to slowly climb. Utah set up a number of programs to continue fighting the spread, making sure everyone was getting tested, even introducing an app for its citizens to use to look up symptoms of the coronavirus. At the beginning of May, the number of confirmed cases were at 6000, and on May 15th, Governor Herbert made the announcement that the state wold transition to reopen.


While there was cause to hope that things were being well contained in Utah, the following headlines from the week of the press release tell a different story.


Monday May 25th – “One new death, 129 new COVID-19 cases in Utah.” KUTV25.com
Tuesday May 26th – “Utah coronavirus death toll tops 100 with 3 more fatalities reported.” deseret.com
Wednesday May 27th – “Utah reports 4 more deaths.” sltrib.com
Thursday May 28th – “Utah reports 2 more deaths as new cases jump by 215.” sltrib.com
Friday May 29th – “Utah reports largest one-day rise in COVID-19 cases, and one new fatality.” sltrib.com
Saturday May 30th – “Utah sees another spike in coronavirus cases, third big day in a row.” sltrib.com
Sunday May 31st – Utah is averaging more than 200 new coronavirus cases a day over the past week…” sltrib.com

Let’s pretend for a minute that the league genuinely believed that Utah was the perfect place. With the cup slated to begin June 27th, teams needed to hit the ground running while remaining safe. For OL Reign, that meant traveling outside of the state. At the time of the NWSL press release, Washington State was still in Phase 1, meaning they weren’t allowed to train in small groups. There was an assumption that some teams could travel to Utah to begin training there, however, the Reign had a different idea.


In an article OL Reign CEO Bill Predmore stated, "The situation in our state forced us to cultivate multiple options for preseason training outside of Tacoma. Our initial plan had been to travel to Utah for training camp, as what Utah offered was incredible, and (Utah Royals owner) Dell Loy Hansen’s generosity was tremendous," however, "Despite the very compelling opportunity in Utah, late last week we made the decision to hold our training camp in Missoula, Montana, as the unique combination of elements will provide the best and safest possible experience for our players and staff."


The Reign turned down the opportunity to train in Utah to get used to the altitude and do some isolating to be ready for the cup to train in another state. Let that sink in.


And they weren’t the only team. On June 1, Jeff Kassouf tweeted out this statement from Portland.


Two teams choosing to train elsewhere instead of going to Utah. This isn’t weird to anyone yet? Nope? Nope, okay.


Follow me to the East coast as we check in on North Carolina. As of Wednesday June 24th, Wake County – where the Courage train and play – had 4,211 confirmed cases. On May 27th, they had 1,538 cases. Not a good number in overall cases, but not terrible. However, to go from 1,538 cases to 4,211 in 28 days is a problem. The whole state is experiencing such a spike that they’ve had to move the Republican National Convention to another location.


Let’s jump down and see how Houston’s doing in the south. Texas famously reopened at the beginning of May because Governor Greg Abbott is the most impotent and incompetent leader the state has had since Rick Perry, and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick thinks our grandparents would be proud to die so the economy can restart. And to NO ONE’s surprise, things have only gone from bad to worse. Texas had never flattened its curve, with the whole state believing COVID-19 would take Mother’s Day off. They packed in everywhere, to the chagrin of the nation, and now they’re reaping what they sow. What does that have to do with the Dash?


Location.


As of today, June 25, 2020, Harris County has 9,533 confirmed cases. The whole city of Houston itself has 25,786 confirmed cases. That’s an extremely high number, with Dallas, Austin and San Antonio as the only other cities with numbers close to that. The Houston Dash train and live smack dab in the middle of that madness. The most tiny glimmer of hope is on the horizon, as NBC news reported that just today (June 25) "The governor of Texas hit the brakes on reopening his state Thursday as hospitals were inundated with an explosion of new COVID-19 cases and officials warned there might not be enough beds available." Better late than never, I suppose. "The last thing we want to do as a state is go backwards and close down businesses," Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement. "This temporary pause will help our state corral the spread until we can safely enter the next phase of opening our state for business." Ah, yes. The last thing we want to do is keep Texans safe.

And while I’m aware that we should be giving the players the benefit of the doubt and trust that they’re doing the right thing... may I direct your attention to the Orlando Pride?


Hours before final rosters were set to be released so WosSo stans could harass players choosing to sit this one out, Orlando announced that six of their players and four staff members tested positive for COVID-19 and therefore the entire team would withdraw from the tournament. That’s a shockingly high number of positive results, until you look at what’s going on in the state of Florida.


Just like Texas, Florida is also governed by an anti-science puppet who reopened the state way too early. Truly, his incompetence knows no bounds. The decision to reopen restaurants and bars came as the number of confirmed cases were climbing higher than a squirrel being chased by a dog up a tree. By now, everyone is aware of the famous bar trip taken by some Pride players and while they probably have been dragged within an inch of their lives by Marta, they very easily could’ve gotten the virus by going to the grocery store, Starbucks, or Trader Joe’s. Coronavirus is so prevalent in Florida right now, it’s horrifying that the NBA and MLS are going to be crammed into Disney World resorts, like that’s going to keep them safe. Orange County – where Pride players train and live – reports 5,502 confirmed cases as of June 25th. The entire state of Florida has 103,503 confirmed cases. It seemed to be a matter of when, not if, Pride players would test positive.


However...what if those players...had already been in Utah?



The chart above shows teams that are the most-high risk, so let’s look at what the NWSL has done to make sure everyone is kept safe and healthy in their respective markets.


According to the guidelines outlined on NWSLSoccer.com, during preseason, weekly testing is required for every player and staff member who is part of the travel party to Utah and for those who will continue to be at training in home markets. Prior to travel to Utah, testing should take place within 48-72 hours of boarding the flight, with enough time to receive results prior to boarding. Teams need to arrive by Wednesday June 24th to allow maximum time of 48 hours for receipt of test results. Teams who would like to arrive earlier should contact Liz Dalton.


Julia Poe, reporter for the Orlando Sentinel tweeted out on June 22nd.




The league decided. Instead of allowing a team to come in early to start getting ready, they said no. They would rather have all nine teams crowding the airport, with the Washington Spirit and North Caroline Courage sharing the same charter flight, because nothing says "social distance" like two teams of 26 players each all on one flight.


Bob Williams, US Correspondent for SportsBusiness, tweeted out the following.

Why wouldn’t the league let Orlando travel? Why have the tournament in a state that was seeing a steep rise in cases the day they announced the tournament? Hansen could’ve easily footed the bill for a fall tournament, so why in the summer?


We could speculate that the NWSL was so eager to get something up and running that they decided the risk would be worth it. Sure, Utah is a hot-spot, but you have an owner footing the bill and making sure they have sweet ping-pong tables to keep them busy. Hopefully, players are staying one hundred percent quarantined and only leaving their houses/apartments when it’s absolutely necessary, along with getting weekly testing through their clubs. That’s especially smart for the Dash; on June 24th, TheHill.com reported that Trump’s administration is ending its support for 13 testing sites across Texas. “Four of the seven testing sites in jeopardy are in Houston and Harris County, which public experts say could become the area worst hit by COVID-19 in the country.”


I’m sure it’ll be fine.


Other speculation ties in with the new viewing partnership the league has with CBS. Getting games to air on primetime and bring in new fans is an absolute must for the league. With other leagues on hold and not starting until July, they needed to strike while the iron is hot and get eyeballs on the NWSL. Streaming old games on Twitch seems to be doing well, so it’s time to level up. However, couldn’t CBS still air some games in the fall? Or would the NWSL fall by the wayside for other (male) sports that draw in bigger crowds? I’m not familiar with how the deal with CBS works, but if it's only available during a certain time frame, that could also be why the NWSL needs to have a summer and not a fall tournament. Some top health officials have agreed that warm weather and heat could play a factor in limiting the spread of the coronavirus, so it really could be as simple as that. Sometimes the easiest way from point A to point B is a straight line.


We could say that it’s most likely the league has true good intention intentions about having a summer tournament, with 210 players just as eager to get started. As the saying goes, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions." As for the many safety protocols as they say will be in place: in an article posted on PamplinMedia.com, Dr. Daryl Osbahr, a member of the NWSL Medical Task Force that created the protocols, said "there is no established number of positive tests that would cause the tournament to be canceled. He called the protocol 'proactive' and noted that given their age and fitness level, the medial effects for players who catch COVID-19 'would not be expected to be significant.'"

If that quote doesn’t concern you, then I don’t know how to explain that you should care about other people. Even though the risk for the age bracket most NWSL players are in is massively lower, that doesn't mean it's zero risk. And that also means that there's simply no way to tell how each player will react to contracting the virus. They could have mild symptoms and have a complete recovery or they could have severe symptoms, requiring hospitalization and suffering through lingering side effects that could change their athletic career.

And if you think I’m being facetious or blowing this out of portion, athletes from all sports have been reporting lingering symptoms after their recoveries from COVID-19. The New York Times published a story about athletes recovering from COVID-19 that I think everyone needs to read. One of Argentina’s superstar players Paulo Dybala tested positive for COVID-19, along with his girlfriend. In an interview with en.as.com, he stated that "I had stronger symptoms, I got tired very quickly, when I wanted to train, I was short of breath after five minutes. Then we noticed that something was not right and through the tests the club did we were told that we were positive. From there we had more symptoms, such as cough, tired body and when we slept I felt very cold, but from the club they had told us that we were going to be fine so we had to be calm."

As of June 6th, he was training but still not one hundred percent recovered. Some athletes might not be so lucky, and I don’t feel that it’s out of the realm of possibility that an NWSL player might not fully recover, if they contract the virus. In a zoom interview with Front Office Sports on June 24th, Commissioner Lisa Baird stated that they were bringing in teams early and that they had "an update with the head of the COVID response team from Utah and we’re ready right now."

Ready for what? Positive test results? As of June 24th, the Utah had 484 new confirmed cases. The Salt Lake Tribune posted these charts in an article published that same day. I feel they speak for themselves.



The safety protocols that the NWSL has set up are very good, I’ll give them credit for that. But again, for all this planning, all it takes is one case to make everything snowball and it may be a little naïve to think that players aren’t going to want to venture out. Perhaps seeing what happened in Orlando will be enough of a deterrent, but I think we should be prepared for the possibility that one or two players will slip their leash. Even if they don’t, there are simply so many other people roaming around this “village” that they could very likely contract the virus even while isolated.

But perhaps the biggest reason why this tournament shouldn't happen is because of one very crucial fact: some test results cannot be trusted. As I was wrapping this up, Jeff Kassouf reported that the Pride players who tested positive on Sunday, have tested negative on Tuesday. The players are continuing to be tested to hopefully find out the truth. Julia Poe also reported that "days after the team withdrew from the Challenge Cup, additional rounds of testing are continuing to produce inconclusive results." That is super concerning. If Orlando is showing either false positive or false negative results, how are we supposed to trust other test results from teams?


It's been said over and over that this virus is so unpredictable, you don't know you have it until you're struggling to catch your breath and you're hoping you can have a full recovery. Poe also said, "A third round of testing later in the week continued to provide inconsistent results, with some of the previous positive results coming back as negative or inconclusive." That is scary. If that isn't scary to you, then I truly don't know what to tell you. How in the WORLD can the league possibly have 210 players and test results you can't trust? Can you imagine the panic the players will go through when they're told whoever tested them has no clue if they're positive or negative? What about the moms traveling with their children?


I hate to admit this, but it seems that the big underling factor behind this 2020 COVID Cup is money. And while the higher-ups may never admit it, the way this tournament was slapped together, in a state that has no business hosting a sleepover - never mind a major tournament - and that there’s no set number of positive test results that would cause cancellation, screams that money is the main motivation. I’m most certainly happy to be wrong, but if they really did care about player safety, they would’ve moved the tournament to another city and had it later on in the year. Other cities would’ve been just as happy to host the tournament and it takes the bare minimum to keep track of what’s going on in all potential host states to help make the right decision. I would’ve been much more supportive of this tournament if the league had said "so we’ve been keeping an eye on Utah and we’ve decided to postpone the tournament to move it to other city that isn’t about to reach hospital capacity." But the temptation of being the first league to return to sports is too great for the league to ignore. And John Lennon said it best:

Life happens when you’re making plans.