Canadian goalkeeper Erin McLeod smiles each time she hits the pitch to train with the Orlando Pride of the National Women’s Soccer League, though she could never have imagined she’d be playing under these circumstances.
The NWSL announced this week it will resume play with a 25-game tournament next month, making it the first North American team sport to return to competition during the coronavirus pandemic.
“My initial reaction was ‘I love to play,'” said McLeod, a warrior for Team Canada through four FIFA Women’s World Cups and two Olympic Games, winning bronze in London 2012. “Health is everyone’s main concern right now and it’s nice to know there’s the opportunity to play competitively while being in a really safe environment.
“I’ve been incredibly impressed with the medical side of things and the attention to detail. A lot of mixed emotions for sure, but if you know me, I feel like I’m five years old again. I’m always excited to play soccer when I can.”
The 37-year-old native of St. Albert, Alta., is one of 16 Canadians plying their trade in the nine-team NWSL. Among the others include longtime national team stars Christine Sinclair (Portland Thorns FC), Sophie Schmidt (Houston Dash) and Diana Matheson and Desiree Scott (Utah Royals FC).
The Challenge Cup, which will run June 27 through July 26, will see all teams stay and play in facilities on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, Utah. Each team will play four group stage games, with the top eight teams continuing to a single-elimination format. Games will be televised and streamed by CBS and its online and broadcast affiliates. And like most professional sports making their return, there will be no fans in the stands for games.
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All players and team personnel will be tested for COVID-19 before leaving for Utah, and will be regularly screened thereafter. The league is covering the cost for 28 players and seven staff members from each team to travel to Utah and there are talks to have five substitutions per match to combat fatigue.
Players can opt out of the tournament if they have concerns about their safety. There are salary guarantees and insurance for all players — regardless of whether they play or not.
Since being shuttered like the rest of the sports world on March 11, the NWSL and its commissioner Lisa Baird, the players’ association and a 15-doctor task force have been putting together a robust protocol for a return to play.
It ramped up this past week with small-group training, with any player or staff undergoing testing before participating. No more than eight players can be in attendance at one time. Players have a set arrival time, they must wear their masks upon entry and go through symptom and temperature screening. Coaches, athletic trainers, sport scientists, team physicians and equipment managers can be on-site as essential staff. Everything is sanitized before and after each session.
“It isn’t too different, except three-quarters of your team is missing,” McLeod said with a laugh. “Considering everything, I think this club has done a really good job of keeping as much normalcy as possible.”
Once a team has completed five days of small-group sessions, they can move onto full squad training as of Saturday using the same precautions.
Perhaps no one is happier to be on the field right now than McLeod. She’s back in the NWSL after spending the past few seasons in Europe with various clubs in Germany and Sweden.
Last year was a tough one for her because of injuries. A foot injury ruled her out of contention for a spot on Canada’s 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup squad. It was initially thought to be plantar fasciitis but was later diagnosed as tarsal tunnel syndrome, which caused severe pain and swelling in her foot.
“I’m so grateful that I can walk without being in so much pain. I guess the one thing that this virus has made you think about is that there are no guarantees. So everyday I show up for training and put my boots on, I’m so grateful for that moment.”
While COVID-19 has been the chief concern, so has the overall health of the players including the possibility of an increase in injuries.
It’s an intense schedule and the teams have just five weeks to get ready for it. Teams could play as many as seven games in a span of 29 days. On average there would be three days rest between games.
Players had expressed concerns about the compressed timeline and that almost all of the games would be played on artificial turf at Zions Bank Stadium. The semifinals and final will be on grass at Rio Tinto Stadium, the home of the Utah Royals.
With a month to go before the showcase, McLeod is enjoying getting to know her teammates.
“Everyone has been super welcoming and very professional. It’s also nice to be the new kid, you know, being a little nervous, not knowing where you fit in. I think it’s good to feel those things every once in a while,” she said.
“This is such a unique circumstance. Optimally you want to gel as much as a team, amp up in a way that’s calculated and safe and smart. A lot of people haven’t played for about a year. I expect to see a lot of growth game to game once the tournament starts.”
And as for whether Canadian soccer fans may see McLeod add to her 118 caps with the national team, perhaps even for next summer’s Tokyo Olympics, that’s up in the air. She’s one of four goalkeepers in a talented group that includes Kailen Sheridan, Sabrina D’Angelo and Stephanie Labbe. McLeod says she’s taking it day by day.
“Right now, I’m considered an option,” she said of Tokyo. “The Olympics have been such a big part of my heart, my passion, my drive, but I’m in a place where I’ve done the time, I’ve done a lot of things I’m very proud of, so what happens from now on is kind of just the icing on the cake. I would love to go, who wouldn’t want to go.
“If I could wear the Maple Leaf on my chest one more time I would definitely be up for that.”