Hoping To Stop Players From Fleeing, NWSL Decides It Wants To Keep Playing Soccer This Year

Amid a spree of big-name players leaving the league, the NWSL is trying to stop the bleeding.

The National Women’s Soccer league isn’t done with the 2020 season just yet. Even after declaring a champion at the NWSL Challenge Cup in July, the league announced on Tuesday it would continue playing matches this season. Maybe having a team that had never made the playoffs declared champion didn’t sit well with the league.

“Building on the success of this summer’s Challenge Cup, I am so excited to smartly and safely take this next step on the NWSL’s journey,” NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird said. “The women of the NWSL want to compete and we’ve certainly heard from our fans all over the world looking for more action this year. I’d like to thank the NWSL Player’s Association for their constant collaboration, as well as CBS for continuing to invest in our league’s growth and this unprecedented opportunity to showcase the NWSL to a world-wide audience, week-in, week-out.”

The league will return with a Fall Series featuring 18 matches, including four televised on big CBS. The nine teams will be placed into three pods of three, with each team playing each pod opponent once at home and once on the road. Yes, this means there will be no bubble, which could cause problems considering none of the major sports leagues has been able to keep its players Covid-free without the use of a bubble. A complete schedule will be released next week. 

NWSL players will fly commercial to their matches across the country; with the exception of the Northeast pod, none are all that closely located.

Interestingly, as Jonathan Tannenwald noted, the NWSL has created protocols that will allow for fans to be in stands. The NWSL would hardly be the first league in the U.S. to allow fans back in the stands — both the USL Championship and MLS have done so — but it remains irresponsible to host matches with fans in most areas of the country given the number of people dying every day.

But all of these measures are probably necessary just to keep the league relevant.

As the UEFA Women’s Champions League reaches a conclusion and new women’s seasons about to start in Europe, playing abroad has never been more attractive for a variety of reasons

The NWSL was the first major pro team sports league to return to play during the novel coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. The league set the standard for how to play during the global crisis, creating a bubble where no players or staff tested positive for Covid-19. 

The NWSL Challenge Cup was a success in many regards: players were kept safe, the competition was stellar and the TV ratings were massive. But as soon as the competition ended, players began fleeing for Europe.

Following the departure of Sam Kerr before the season, a large number of other foreign players began moving abroad in search of better contracts, a problem exacerbated by the Covid-19. After the Challenge Cup, Sam Mewis was the first USWNT player to go abroad, with Rose Lavelle following her shortly at Manchester City. 

What’s the point of staying in a country where the federal government refuses to do anything to contain the deadly pandemic when you can sign with a European club that will pay better and actually play matches?

Facing the threat of more players leaving the league, the NWSL essentially had to find a way to play more matches and keep the stars Stateside. 

Is it the safest thing to do right now? No, not really, but for the same reason restaurants are desperately allowing folks to eat indoors right now, they’ve gotta try something to stay relevant, even if it puts lives at risk.

Crucially for the NWSL, CBS will air four NWSL Game of the Week matches on CBS in September to give the league plenty of exposure. In October those matches will be moved to CBS Sports Network, with the for-pay CBS All Access streaming four more games in September. 

We’re never going to complain about more soccer — especially women’s soccer, which is much harder to come by. We just hope the NWSL can pull this off as safely as the NWSL Challenge Cup. 

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