ST. JOHN’S, Canada— North American fans of the beautiful game are about to get the footy fix they’ve long been waiting for.
The National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) is set to get back underway in a tournament style format kicking off in Utah on June 27.
Despite the fact that multiple media outlets seem to have missed the memo, this competition will indeed mark the return of team sports across the continent.
I’M SO CONFUSED.....why the hell is the @NWSL keep getting OVER LOOKED.... 1st professional league retuning to America. One of the very few women’s league that HAVENT BEEN CANCELED... even tho their counterparts teams are resuming to play.... (part 1)— Kaylyn Kyle (@KaylynKyle) June 14, 2020
The NWSL found itself in a similar situation to that of Major League Baseball with both of their 2020 campaigns yet to get underway when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the sporting world back in March.
As of today, baseball has made little to no progress on a return-to-play plan while women’s soccer is rightfully being applauded as the first sport coming out of the gate.
The question that remains is how exactly was the NWSL able to get a leg up on the competition in the race to return?
According to Houston Dash and Canadian national team forward Nichelle Prince, the plan to get back to playing was a collaborative one between the players and the league’s front office, with the efforts of league commissioner Lisa Baird earning particular praise.
“I think our new Commissioner Lisa (Baird) has been on top of returning and on top of the whole pandemic,” said Prince. “and she’s really informed us throughout every stage, what the plan is.”
While safety was at the forefront in mapping out when the nine team league could resume play, sustainability for the future was one of the key secondary priorities.
For a league that’s still establishing itself in the sporting world, a plan to ensure this past few months wouldn’t put its future in jeopardy was of the utmost importance says OL Reign and Canadian midfielder Rebecca Quinn.
“I think they’ve been pretty proactive with trying to make it happen,” said Quinn of the NWSL’s timeliness in getting back on the pitch. “And I think from a financial perspective too, they’re really looking towards making this happen so our teams can stay supported for seasons to come.”
Since being founded back in 2012, the league has made strides in the congested American sports market.
Sky Blue FC goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan is well aware the league and the sport as a whole remains niche for the time being, but with all its competitors currently on the sidelines, it’s as good a time as ever to try and grow the women’s game.
“The whole goal was to be the first and make a splash,” said Sheridan. “with it being not just soccer, but women’s soccer, we wanted to really put ourselves out there and have an opportunity to highlight something that’s growing, especially in North America.“
Excitement among existing fans of the league is surely beginning to boil over with the first match now less than a week away.
Pro soccer in the U.S. returns this weekend ⚽️— NWSL (@NWSL) June 22, 2020
Hands up if you're hyped ♀️ ♂️#NWSLChallengeCup pic.twitter.com/JBz5VTdkYy
For soccer fans in Canada who are newcomers to the NWSL, the players are ready to invite additional supporters with open arms.
As those north of the border begin to pledge their allegiances to clubs around the league for the first time, Sky Blue’s Canadian keeper is quick to point out their close proximity to the border.
“I think the biggest draw to Sky Blue is that we’re the closest team, especially for the East side of Canada,” said Sheridan, in the case for her New Jersey based outfit. “It’s easy to support something that’s more local to you.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have that representation in Canada yet, but we’re pushing and hoping that one day we (the NWSL) will be represented in Canada by a strong team.”
Down in the Lone Star State, Prince is one of four Canadians currently plying their trade for Houston, joined by fellow national teammates Allysha Chapman, Sophie Schmidt, and Maegan Kelly.
If the sheer number of Canadian players on the Dash roster isn’t enough to win over fans back home, the former Ohio State Buckeye says the quality of play will be the cherry on top.
“I think the Canadians have proven that it’s a good club to be at, I think I’ve improved every year I’ve been on this team,” said Prince. “So hopefully in this tournament people are watching and realize that this is a team that can compete and has world-class players and great quality, so hopefully, we can prove that.”
Canada was set to host Australia in a friendly at BC Place back on April 14th Before COVID-19 ultimately led to its cancellation. For Canadian players across the NWSL, the tournament will serve as a chance to catch up with some national teammates in the flesh for the first time in over three months.
“I’m definitely excited to see some teammates out on the pitch, I don’t think we’ll be seeing them otherwise,” said Quinn. “So it’ll be my opportunity to get to see some of my best friends face to face which will be fun, even if it is in competition.”
Though many of Quinn’s Canadian teammates are still Utah bound this weekend, a pair of Orlando Pride and Canadian National team players won’t be making the trip.
The Pride will not be attending the tournament in an unfortunate late development as six players have tested positive for COVID-19 just days away from their scheduled Saturday opener.
As a result, neither defender Shelina Zadorsky or goalkeeper Erin McLeod will be participating in the competition.
While the chance to socialize with some fellow Canadians is sure to be missed, Quinn and the rest of the Reign roster have some clear goals they hope to accomplish in the ‘Challenge Cup’ tournament.
Putting in hard work. #BeBold pic.twitter.com/MjIG4qZvBR— OL Reign (@OLReign) June 15, 2020
“I mean we’re looking to win it, like any other team. In this format, we only have two months of competitive football this season and so everyone’s out to win it and that’s no different for us.”
“I think we have the quality this season, we’re not waiting as a build-up here for next season, we have the quality now in order to win a tournament-style championship.”
Backed by Canadian goalkeeper Stephanie Labbé, the North Carolina Courage come in as reigning back to back champions and the betting favourite to win the tournament.
Another Canadian will join Labbé in the North Carolina lineup for the 2020 season as Lindsay Agnew signed a one-year deal with the club last week just in time for the tournament.
While odds makers and fans alike show the Courage plenty of respect going in, those around the league are quick to point out the unfamiliarity of the format.
“I think that’s what the exciting part of this tournament is,” said Prince. “It’s like nothing we’ve experienced before with the league, a tournament is so different.”
“Obviously I’ve experienced the World Cup and it’s not always necessarily the best team that wins, you can get lucky and get through to the next round and so I don’t think it’s always the strongest team or the team that’s ranked number one that wins, it’s really anyone’s game.”
The 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup revised schedule is now available and can be found here.
How To Watch
The entire tournament will be available live in Canada on CBS’ All Access streaming service available as an app on all iOS and Android mobile and tablet devices and found on your smart TV’s via Android TV, Apple TV, Chromecast, Fire TV, Roku devices and Apple TV Channels.
The subscription costs just $5.99 a month and includes the option to catch up on previously completed games in the tournament you might have missed.
Pro tip: The site offers a FREE one month trial with the option to cancel at anytime. With the tournament tentatively scheduled to run from June 27th to July 26th, you should be able to catch every game live without spending a penny if you plan accordingly.