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She Played a Final in an Empty Stadium, Then Caught One of the Last Flights Out of Australia

Lauren Barnes's loan to Melbourne City from OL Reign ended with a championship won under unique circumstances and a frantic scramble to return home amid the coronavirus outbreak.

American defender Lauren Barnes is an eighth-year veteran of the NWSL’s OL Reign, but in six of those years she has also played during the NWSL offseason on loan in the Australian W-League. On March 21, in one of the few remaining pro sporting events on the planet due to the coronavirus, her Melbourne City team beat Sydney FC 1-0 to win the league title—and the setting in an empty stadium was only one of the strange aspects of a memorable weekend for the Southern California native.

“It was two different worlds for me,” Barnes said on the latest Planet Fútbol Podcast, “because I had family in L.A. that were at home and locked down and only essential stores were open, and at the same time in Australia I was still playing, still training, still had the same routine as if it was a normal season without COVID-19, and cafes and everything like that were still open.”

Barnes originally had a flight back to the U.S. set for March 27, which would have allowed her to stay in Australia a few days, get everything packed and go to the team awards event before arriving in Seattle for the start of her preseason on April 7. But with the situation getting worse in the U.S., she decided she didn’t want to get stuck in Australia for two months and pushed to get a flight out to L.A. on March 22, the day after the final.

“I was pretty nervous to fly,” she said, “with it being so contagious and you're obviously around so many people in an airport and on a flight. And my flight was packed. No seats were open. We actually had a cruise ship that was in Melbourne that was on the flight, and a lot of the cases had been coming from those. So I was just so stressed. But I had all the disinfectant you can think of. I had masks, I had gloves. One of the flight attendants announced on the intercom that this was probably the last flight going out to L.A.”

The 16-hour flight is usually hard enough, but surviving close quarters when you’re assuming everyone’s infected with the coronavirus takes it to a new level. Once the flight finally landed at LAX, which is usually teeming with chaos, Barnes encountered … the opposite. Even at customs. 

“When I got to L.A., it was so eerie, which is just not usual,” she said. “And I fly so much in and out of L.A., and I've seen it at its worst. And I thought definitely this time it would be, but there was not a soul in sight.”

Barnes was on Day 7 of a 14-day quarantine when she spoke to Sports Illustrated on Sunday, and since her mother is an a high-risk group, they’re wearing masks and gloves inside and staying more than six feet away from each other. But Barnes said it was so far, so good. Neither one of them has any symptoms yet.

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Barnes wasn’t the only American playing in the Australian final. Her Melbourne teammate Ally Watt came on as a sub, and Sydney had Sofía Huerta and Aubrey Bledsoe. Barnes said all the other Americans were able to make it back to the States afterward.

Going on loan to Australian teams in the NWSL offseason has become popular for players, because it provides a way to earn extra money and stay sharp in a league whose calendar is complementary to the NWSL’s.

“It's fun to go and compete and win another championship in a different league,” Barnes said. “And to be fair, I just love the Australian lifestyle. I love the people there. It's very much live-first and work-second, a little bit slower pace than it is in the U.S. So that's a bigger pull for me because that's kind of my personality … And especially the season this year we had, we were undefeated. It was such a special group, both on and off the field.”

But playing nearly year-round for so many years hasn’t always been easy for Barnes, since she has little time to recover. If there’s one positive to take away from the virus, it’s that she’ll have some time off before the NWSL season starts. But she doesn’t want too much time off. For now, she’s training at home. 

“I do have a little gym that I've designed in the garage,” she said. “I've got a treadmill, I've got a bike, I've got all the weights I need. The downside is not being able to actually train soccer-specific stuff. But I can go out and do some of that stuff on my own.”

When Barnes does return to Seattle eventually, she’ll encounter a team that has changed dramatically in the offseason with the purchase of the team by Olympique Lyonnais and the renaming of the club from Reign FC to OL Reign.

“The Predmores, who have been our owners until now, will always be considered my owners,” Barnes said. “I love them to death. They've been great for me personally, and I've seen all the work they've put into this club throughout the years. And why they've made this move is still to benefit us girls. But Reign in the past has always wanted to be the best club in the world. And if this is the next step to do that, our owners were going to be prepared to do that.

“And I think it's been a great move. I've heard great things about the coach [Farid Benstiti]. They had started a little bit of preseason, so I've heard some really great feedback from the girls, and I think I'm just excited to see how we benefit from it.”