Between the pandemic and Olympic preparation, the 2021 NWSL preseason will look a bit different this spring.
By Alex Holmes
The 2021 NWSL preseason began on Monday, with all 10 teams beginning their preparation for the league’s ninth season. Amid the pandemic, the NCAA’s first official spring soccer season, and with the Olympics right around the corner, this preseason will look a little different from years before.
Preseason starts Monday ⚽️— National Women's Soccer League (@NWSL) January 29, 2021
How are we feeling about it? ⤵️ pic.twitter.com/zEIag03xuh
The league recently announced several key dates for the upcoming season. Teams will have just over two months to prepare for the second edition of the Challenge Cup, which will begin April 9. Following the Challenge Cup, the league regular season will begin May 15 and feature a 24-game schedule. Later in the summer, the season will continue through the Olympic Games with no break, so the teams will spend a good chunk of time without their national team players. The regular season will conclude on Oct. 30, with the six-team playoffs running from Nov. 6 to Nov. 20.
The league’s busy 2021 doesn’t end there, with the Expansion Draft for 2022 NWSL debutantes Angel City FC and Sacramento slated for December 16.
National team updates
On Monday, the USWNT released its 23-player roster for this month’s SheBelieves Cup. The roster includes 17 players whose NWSL teams began their preseason this week, including the likes of Carli Lloyd (Sky Blue FC), Alex Morgan (Orlando Pride), Crystal Dunn (Portland Thorns FC), Kelly O’Hara (Washington Spirit) and Julie Ertz (Chicago Red Stars). Several of these players will begin training with their club teams this week and then join U.S. Soccer on Feb. 8 in Orlando.
The U.S. will play three games on Feb. 18, 21, and 24 against Canada, Brazil and Argentina in that order. Head coach Vlatko Andonovski will use these games to prepare for the Olympic soccer tournament, which will take place July 21 through Aug. 6. The NWSL will not break for the Olympics during this time, which will create an opportunity for remaining league players to step up.
For the States 🇺🇸— National Women's Soccer League (@NWSL) February 1, 2021
NWSL talent highlights the @USWNT's final roster for the 2021 SheBelieves Cup ⤵️
If the SheBelieves Cup roster is any indication of which teams will be missing their top players during the Olympics, then Chicago and Portland will be the hardest hit. Both teams have four players on the current USWNT roster. This will give players like Morgan Gautrat (formerly Morgan Brian), Danielle Colaprico, and Kealia Watt a chance to showcase their skills should Julie Ertz, Tierna Davidson, and Mallory Pugh join Alyssa Naeher in Tokyo.
The Portland Thorns could potentially be without Becky Sauerbrunn, Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan, Sophia Smith, and Christine Sinclair (Canada) during the Olympics. Players like Meghan Klingenberg, Rocky Rodriguez, and Adrianna Franch will need to make up for their absence, which will particularly weigh on the team’s defensive end.
A different spring
The COVID-19 pandemic altered the playing schedules for many college teams, which traditionally play their seasons in the fall. Given the number of Power Five soccer teams that will compete in spring games ahead of the NCAA tournament in May, there are several notable players who will not join their club teams until the conclusion of their NCAA spring season.
Among those players are Sky Blue FC’s Brianna Pinto and Kansas City’s Kiki Pickett, who went No. 3 and No. 4 in last month’s draft. Pinto, an elite midfielder, will play with UNC Chapel Hill, while Pickett, one of the nation’s top defenders, will compete with Stanford during the spring season. Both teams are heavy favorites to make the 2021 College Cup in May, and the two players could be on a collision course toward a rematch of the 2019 College Cup Final where Pickett and the Cardinal won on penalty kicks.
Top pick Emily Fox and No. 2 overall Trinity Rodman are expected to make their NWSL debuts in April.
Last month, the league’s Medical Task Force announced new COVID-19 protocols for the 2021 season. Here are a few quick takeaways from how the league plans to tackle the coronavirus:
A player may apply for a medical opt-out if she or someone in her household is at high-risk for getting COVID-19 with qualifying pre-existing conditions, based on CDC guidelines. The league determines who receives a medical opt-out, which would give the player full compensation for the season.
The league will require all players and team personnel to be tested two times per week, using the PCR method. Testing was also required prior to arriving at team camps.
The protocol for players who test positive includes a second test to follow up the original positive. The player remains in isolation upon testing positive. If the first two test results are inconsistent, then a third test will be conducted.
A confirmed positive case results in the player quarantining herself for a minimum of 10 days, in which she is not allowed to exercise. She must remain symptom-free for 7 days before beginning the process of integrating back into the team.
Following the 10 day quarantine, the player will receive an ECG, troponin, and echocardiogram tests to monitor her body’s response to the virus. The return process for a player comes in six stages: (1) isolation for a minimum of 10 days, (2) light activity for a minimum of two days, (3) heavier activity, such as running drills for no more than 30 minutes a day, (4) complex training for no more than 45 minutes in a day, (5) a two-day minimum of increased physical activity for no more than one hour per day, and finally, (6) return to team training.
The league has a plan for contract tracing among potential exposures for symptomatic and asymptomatic positive cases. The NWSL’s full COVID-19 protocol is found here.
The NWSL, one of the first professional leagues to play amid the pandemic last summer, will continue to adapt to a new normal leading up to the beginning of the season. The format for the 2021 Challenge Cup, as well as the full regular season schedule will be released at a later date.