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‘Extraordinary’ National Women’s Soccer League Challenge Cup concludes coronavirus-free in Utah

The Houston Dash celebrate their win in the NWSL Challenge Cup at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Sunday, July 26, 2020. The Houston Dash celebrate their win in the NWSL Challenge Cup at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Sunday, July 26, 2020. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SANDY — Just before Rachel Daly and Shea Groom met with the press via Zoom on Sunday after their Houston Dash beat the Chicago Red Stars 2-0 at Rio Tinto Stadium to win the monthlong National Women’s Soccer League’s Challenge Cup, they and teammates shared a brief moment with Utah Royals FC owner Dell Loy Hansen.

There, Daly said, players “thanked him severely for everything he’s done. I think putting on this tournament was brave.”

Daly’s thanks continued with NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird, who had assumed her role just two days before the league shut down in March in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Lisa Baird, I think absolute bravery. She’s come in, stepped up to the plate,” said Daly, the English star who was named tournament MVP. “When I went up to collect the awards, I said ‘Thank you’ to her because she’s been absolutely phenomenal.”

Then Daly expanded her gratitude list, from caterers to the people who cleaned the locker rooms.

“Every single person that put in effort to make this happen, so much credit to them,” Daly said. “They put in so many hours.”

While “bubble” has become the popular term to describe how many sports leagues are returning to play in a single location as the pandemic continues on, the NWSL called their setup in Utah — conceived by Hansen — a “village,” and indeed it took a village to see that the league became the first one in the United States to return to play and do so safely.

On Sunday, the league reported that there was not a single positive test for coronavirus among the eight teams and all others involved throughout the entire event, which merited acknowledgement of health professionals in Utah from the public address announcer at Rio Tinto Stadium before the championship match began.

“Life in the bubble and competing in the bubble is intense, and I’m really proud of our players and the team staffs for the quality and the excitement of the play,” Baird said during a Zoom press conference on Saturday, veering from the “village” moniker. “We had really strict and disciplined protocols, and we had players who lived them and breathed them, which is why we were successful in health.”

Daly echoed that sentiment.

“It’s a difficult thing to do, living in the bubble for a month, and we were here obviously for a month (teams left as they were eliminated), but the safety of this was second-to-none,” she said. “It took a lot of bravery from the players to step up.”

Added Chicago’s Savannah McCaskill: “Everything here in Utah, making sure everything was clean, everyone did a good job. It was as safe an environment as possible, but also good job to the players, because we all took it seriously. We did everything we could do to make everyone safe. I think the combination allowed the tournament to be played safely.”

The tournament, of course, was held not only during the pandemic, but as the United States grapples with issues surrounding racial justice. From the very beginning as players kneeled during the national anthem and then again on the field before games started, it was clear that the Black Lives Matter movement was going to be a significant part of the event.

“There’s been a lot of social issues and issues that have gone on outside of this that I think it’s absolute bravery from all the players and all the staff,” Daly said. “Honestly, it’s been such a humbling experience.”

On Friday, Baird said of the league’s support of the players association’s initiative to illuminate the Black Lives Matter movement, “I think we supported it strongly and well and consistently through this tournament,” adding that, “I need to be doing more listening and more talking particularly with our Black players to really understand how we can take this league and make it an example of what we need to do to eradicate racism in this country.”

While to some degree actual gameplay took a backseat to the topics of safety and racial justice, players delivered well in that regard. Where there was a lack of scoring during the quarterfinal round, the drama of penalty kicks made up for it. Where there was a lack of star talent as a number of United States Women’s National Team players didn’t compete, some lesser-known players made names for themselves.

“I think the excitement of the games has been extraordinary,” Baird said. “I’m really proud of all the players and the intensity they have done with this competition and how they have kept fighting to the finish. It’s been truly extraordinary.”

It’s been widely assumed that the Challenge Cup would be the entirety of the 2020 NWSL season, and that may well prove to be the case, although Baird said teams will almost surely be able to train again soon, and she left the door open for further competition this year in some fashion.

She said she’s looking forward to having conversations with governors and mayors about continuing play, and while local restrictions will always be honored, she said, “I want to show them what we did in Utah and how we worked with the Utah state and local officials to make sure that our protocols and our ability to be in a place conformed to them.

We were able to do it in Utah, and that was working very closely with Gen. (Jefferson) Burton, Gov. (Gary) Herbert and the mayor of Salt Lake County (Jenny Wilson) to do that, and that’s what we’ll use as the guiding principle around travel first and foremost.”

Whatever happens with the NWSL moving forward in 2020, as URFC general manager Stephanie Lee pointed out on Twitter Sunday, the league will be able to hold a few notable distinctions in this most unique of years thanks to what has happened over the last month.

“With the @NWSL Challenge Cup Final today, let it be said that we did this first, we were successful first, when many said it couldn’t be done,” she wrote, adding a flexed bicep emoji.