Testing at core of NWSL’s tournament plan

As the National Women’s Soccer League prepares to become one of the first North American leagues to return amid the coronavirus pandemic, testing and tracing are at the core of its plans.

The NWSL formed a 15-physician task force to look at health and safety in its preparations for the 25-match Challenge Cup in Utah starting on June 27.

Because of the league’s size, with nine teams overall, the logistics needed to protect players are less daunting than those faced by bigger leagues such as the NBA or Major League Baseball, whose seasons remain in limbo.

“We were very thoughtful of how do we provide the safest environment, but also, the goal of not shutting down the tournament or necessarily a team, by one positive result,” said Dr. Daryl Osbahr, a member of the medical task force who spoke to reporters on a conference call. “So we have very thorough ways to do contact tracing and make sure we can identify the players that were in contact, along with CDC guidelines, and making sure we’re able to quarantine those players and test other players to make sure we’re doing everything we can to provide the best protective environment safety for the athletes.”

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The league also consulted the NWSL players’ association, as well as U.S. Soccer and the national team players’ union, to address athlete concerns. The result is an extensive testing protocol that has been published on the league’s website.

The protocol covers pre-tournament and in-tournament testing and wellness checks, as well as how to handle positive tests. Players will undergo both COVID-19 and antibody tests.

Tests will be conducted by ARUP Laboratories, a nonprofit organization connected with the University of Utah, and the league’s insurance will cover costs. Utah Royals owner Dell Loy Hansen emphasized the tests would not be taken from the supply for Utah residents.

Players who test positive will be quarantined and contact tracing will determine high- and low-risk exposures. The protocol doesn’t address whether a certain number of positive tests would halt the tournament.

“Certainly all of us do realize that there can be multiple positives, but our protocols will help us deal with them in the safest possible manner,” Osbahr said. “But we can’t really try to anticipate or foresee what numbers would be possible to potentially shut something like this down. We’re hoping that we’ll have a successful tournament.”

Players can opt out of the tournament if they have concerns. The players’ union negotiated and won salary guarantees and insurance for all players — regardless of whether they play in the tournament or not.

The union represents nonallocated players in the league. Allocated national team players, including members of the U.S. team that won the World Cup last summer, are represented by their own union. Salaries for the national team are paid by U.S. Soccer.

The players will be kept in what Commissioner Lisa Baird called an “athlete village” for the duration of the Challenge Cup, which runs through July 26. The facilities, which are used by the NWSL’s Royals and Major League Soccer club Real Salt Lake, include a stadium and several training fields. The league’s 230 players and support staff will be housed either in complex dormitories or a hotel.

In addition to testing, players had also expressed concerns about training in advance of the tournament, and that some games would be played on artificial turf at Zions Bank Stadium.

Houston Dash coach James Clarkson confirmed the league was looking at allowing five substitutes per game to help teams navigate player fatigue and reduce injuries. The International Football Association Board, which sets soccer’s rules, agreed to let teams use two extra substitutes per match when soccer resumes. FIFA had requested the temporary rule change because schedules could be more congested as teams try to make up for lost time.

“First and foremost, it always had to be about health and safety. So whether that was surrounding I mean, obviously mainly around COVID-19, but also around ramping us up from sitting on our couches for two months to playing a game in five weeks. There was a lot of talk about how best to do that. Is it long enough preseason? Is there enough precaution for that?” said Portland Thorns defender Emily Menges, who is on the union’s executive board.

“And so I think we got to a good place of a five-week buildup, which I know I’m comfortable with. Some players, coming off injury I know weren’t, but the clubs will individually work with those players. But yes, from the very start, it’s been all focused around health and safety,” she said.

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