Thorns, NWSL set to boldly go where no league has gone before - this summer ... sort of

It’s almost “go” time for the return of pro team sports in America with the National Women’s Soccer League set to kick off Saturday in Salt Lake City.

Fittingly, the Portland Thorns will be involved in the opening match, putting the league’s most successful franchise up against the North Carolina Courage - the league’s second-most successful franchise. And, it will be televised on CBS - the actual network and not a streaming service. It’s the only match of the month-long tournament scheduled for CBS until the final, July 26. All other matches will be streamed on CBS All-Access ($5.99/month) as well as Twitch - for fans outside the U.S. and Canada.

The NWSL is the first league to begin play, albeit in a tournament form, since all leagues stopped the evening of March 11 due to fears from the COVID-19 outbreak.

The NBA and MLS are scheduled to return to some form of play in July, but the NWSL is the first to return to actual physical contact just as European soccer leagues have done in the past month. 

The return comes at a unique time as the number of COVID-19 cases are increasing in many states, including Utah. All the matches will be played at the 5,000-seat Zions Bank Stadium, located in suburban Salt Lake City, with the semifinals and final at Rio Tinto Stadium.

The tournament hit an unexpected snag when Orlando removed itself after more than a dozen players and staff members tested positive. The league, released a modified schedule for the remaining eight teams Tuesday.

The tournament has a number of unique elements such as there’s no extra time in any match and no draws. Each match will have a winner, decided on penalty kicks if it ends in a tie after 90 minutes

Significant testing, social distancing and no on-site fans are part of the plan for the tournament. I guess.

What’s puzzling about the upcoming tournament is the information available about it from the NWSL - there basically isn’t any other than what’s been published three weeks ago about it happening and the schedule and a tiny bit on social media. There’s more information available on regular media and social media about Major League Baseball not playing because they’re fighting about money than there is about the NWSL kicking off in five days.

There’s a lot of stress from other leagues - MLS and NBA - about what the reality of actual games is going to be with all the testing involved. And, with positive tests being reported regularly, the thought that the leagues might not actually get into gear is still out there. But not with the NWSL.

Women’s soccer is on the rise following the U.S. World Cup win last summer. The NWSL has a number of new sponsors, including Budweiser and CBS. There’s a new owner in Seattle (French club Olympique took on that role and renamed the team OL Reign), and a new club in Louisville, Ky., is set to join the league next year.

You have to dig across the Internet to get this info, though. For something of a trending league, this should be front and center to sports fans. 

Even the Thorns, the league’s standout franchise, have not presented any information about the team’s preparation for Saturday’s opener on its own website. How are the players preparing, as well as their thoughts on the dangers that might be involved? One player on one of the nine teams tested positive last week, but the league released no information other than that - no name or team, just that it happened. Did that change any thoughts among the other players on playing? These stories just aren’t anywhere to be read.

It’s almost as if the league were hedging its commitment to the tournament being played, especially with the coronavirus making a surge in the last two weeks.

This is a key moment for the league, its players and women’s soccer. The NWSL is a league of entertainers, as sports is entertainment. And, if it isn’t playing, it’s not entertaining, so the players aren’t working.  And with women’s soccer already starting in the hole of people just not caring other than hardcore soccer fans (it’s barely recogmnized by ESPN), the players are pretty much tied into making the league tournament happen regardless of whatever fear they might have from participating. 

The NWSL has to play this tournament sort of like folks working at Fred Meyer have to stock shelves - frontline workers for sports entertainment.

So. 9:30 a.m. Saturday. Hopefully, the league will make a big deal about it in the next few days, because it really is a big deal for team sports in America.