The NWSL will become the first American pro sports league with contact to return to action after the coronavirus shutdown when play kicks off in Utah this weekend, but in addition to the entire Orlando Pride squad, a number of U.S. women's national team players won't be participating.
The league's eight remaining, active clubs revealed their rosters for the competition on Tuesday, and 2019 World Cup winners Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, Mal Pugh, Christen Press and Tobin Heath are among the players who won't be suiting up.
They'll join Alex Morgan, Ashlyn Harris, Ali Krieger, Emily Sonnett and the rest of the Pride as spectators. Orlando withdrew on Monday after multiple players and staff tested positive for the coronavirus, with multiple reports suggesting that the chief culprit is a group that attended bars and nightclubs in the area, which had been reopened as part of Florida's state guidelines.
Morgan was never going to be playing in the Challenge Cup anyway, given she gave birth about six weeks ago. Beyond that, the reasoning stretches from personal reasons–concern for safety is understandably at the top of many players' minds despite the precautions being taken in the Utah bubble–to injury-related ones.
Rapinoe's absence, a personal choice, was confirmed in comments made a few weeks ago by OL Reign coach Farid Benstiti to French media and addressed by the club upon its roster release.
“Megan let us know that she has decided not play in the tournament. Like all NWSL players, she was given the option to participate. Farid and I would love to have her with the club for the tournament, but we understand and respect her decision,” Reign CEO Bill Predmore said in a club statement. “We have had to find ways to win without Megan in the past and are ready to do so again at the Challenge Cup. Megan is the only OL Reign player that has elected not to participate in the tournament, so despite her absence, Farid and I are confident the team has all the depth and quality it needs to succeed.”
Like Rapinoe, Heath also opted out for personal reasons.
“Although I want to be on the field with my teammates doing what I love because of the uncertainty and risks created by COVID-19, I have chosen not to participate in the NWSL Challenge Cup,” Heath said in a Portland Thorns statement. “I can’t even express how much I am looking forward to my next game in Providence Park.”
Lloyd's absence, meanwhile, was confirmed by Sky Blue FC on Sunday, with a minor knee injury keeping her from competing, while her teammate, Pugh, is out with a hip injury. Press's decision was reported earlier this month by the Salt Lake Tribune and confirmed Tuesday by the tournament host club Utah Royals FC, which enters the tournament shorthanded in the attack considering her absence.
“It is deeply painful not to be able to play the game I love, and to watch the broader effects of the global pandemic on our league, sports, and our world,” Press said. “Regrettably, given the uncertainty created by COVID-19, I must elect not to participate in this tournament. I know how fortunate I am to be able to make this choice. I have enormous respect and gratitude for those who do not have the luxury to choose whether to report to work, including our selfless and heroic first responders. I look forward to supporting my teammates during the tournament in Utah.”
That development is one in a line of setbacks on paper for Utah, which reportedly had deals lined up for French goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi and German playmaker Dzsenifer Marozsan, only for Lyon to wind up re-signing them both to long-term deals on Monday.
It's not all doom-and-gloom for Utah, which will have 2019 world champion Kelley O'Hara and 2015 world champ Amy Rodriguez suiting up, or for the league in general, which will still be boasting 14 of the 23 players on the 2019 USWNT team that was victorious in France (though the North Carolina Courage's Jessica McDonald and the Thorns' Adrianna Franch are out for the opener with injuries) in addition to 2020 SheBelieves Cup winners Casey Short (Chicago Red Stars), Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit) and Lynn Williams (Courage).
In all, the Spirit, Courage, Red Stars and Houston Dash have full participation.
As for the U.S. star absences, they are compounded by the fact that this appears to be it for the NWSL season. As part of its official roster and competition rules and regulations, the league stated that: "The '2020 NWSL Season' will be defined by the NWSL as the number of games played by a team in the tournament. For example, this means that for two teams (those making the final) the 2020 NWSL Season will include 7 games, while for one team the 2020 NWSL will include only 4 games. 2) There will be no 'NWSL postseason/playoffs' in 2020, so it will not be possible for players to earn any incentives based on post-season/playoff achievements."
That pretty clearly spells out that there will be no regular-season games in local markets after the July 26 final, which the Washington Post reports is most likely to be the case, unless fans are cleared to attend.
That means that the last action for a number of these players for an undetermined amount of time figures to be the SheBelieves Cup, which concluded on March 11. The U.S. women's national team has nothing currently on the calendar until the delayed 2021 Olympics after having what it thought would be pre-Olympics friendlies this spring canceled.
Surely that won't remain the case, but everything remains in wait-and-see mode for the USWNT, and for a handful of the core players for manager Vlatko Andonovski, who will reportedly be in attendance in Utah, that wait will be even greater.
2019 USA Women's World Cup roster at the NWSL Challenge Cup
IN: Crystal Dunn, Abby Dahlkemper, Jessica McDonald, Sam Mewis (NC Courage); Rose Lavelle (Washington Spirit); Kelley O'Hara (Utah Royals); Becky Sauerbrunn, Lindsey Horan, Adrianna Franch (Portland Thorns); Julie Ertz, Alyssa Naeher, Tierna Davidson, Morgan Brian (Chicago Red Stars); Allie Long (OL Reign)
OUT: Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign); Carli Lloyd, Mal Pugh (Sky Blue FC); Alex Morgan, Ashlyn Harris, Ali Krieger, Emily Sonnett (Orlando Pride); Christen Press (Utah Royals); Tobin Heath (Portland Thorns)