The 2020 Challenge Cup saw the NWSL become the first American professional team sport to return to play in the wake of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Teams played in a bubble environment with zero confirmed positive COVID-19 tests. The NWSL next progressed its strategy with the 2020 Fall Series, where teams were grouped to home and away matches in three-team regional pods. This phase of COVID-19 restrictions saw a few teams allow a restricted amount of fans into games and one confirmed positive COVID-19 player test. The 2021 Challenge Cup will be the first time that the NWSL will be expanding travel outside of regional pods to full home markets. More teams will also allow fans into stadiums in a restricted capacity.
During the first week of preseason in February 2021, the NWSL conducted over 600 COVID-19 tests and recorded two positive player tests and three positive staff member tests. Involved individuals underwent quarantine according to league protocols. Since that initial round of testing, the NWSL has continued to release weekly testing results for the following weeks. Only two additional individuals have tested positive since the initial round of testing with no positive tests for the last five consecutive weeks.
This preseason, teams traveled locally for preseason games against college sides and some teams to Florida for preseason spells. However, the potential exposure risk during preseason assuming a careful lifestyle is not to the same scale as regular nationwide travel for matches. It is unclear to the public what level of investment will be put into executing the travel, meals, and lodging in a manner to reduce risk of COVID-19 exposure.
While the league will set minimum standards, investment is likely to vary between teams. Most teams shared via social media that their players received the first round of the COVID-19 vaccination, with many states opening vaccinations to all residents over the age of 16. Other leagues around the world have had serious postponements due to COVID-19 outbreaks, including several recent Champion’s League fixtures. It remains uncertain if with more time for preparation, the NWSL will be subject to similar concerning safety situations.
By Tim Antoniewicz