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1st pro-sport makes its return, women’s soccer

The National Women’s Soccer League opens its Challenge Cup tournament Saturday and the pressure is on as it becomes the first professional team sports league to play in the U.S. amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Many of the players aren’t as concerned about being first as they are eager to get back on the field.

“We’ve missed that feeling of the wins, the losses, the hard-fought battles, getting that last goal in the 90th minute,” Portland Thorns midfielder Lindsey Horan said. “It’s so sad not having that. For us players, this is our lives, this is our passion. So we all are so grateful that we have that back.”

The NWSL is taking the field as other professional leagues chart their immediate futures and as COVID-19 cases continue to rise across the nation.

The players and staffs of the eight teams participating in the World Cup-style tournament in Utah are being sequestered in facilities used by the Utah Royals and Major League Soccer’s Real Salt Lake. Players will be subject to a rigorous testing protocol and games will be played without fans.

But the tournament has already hit some snags. The league’s ninth team, the Orlando Pride, was forced to withdraw earlier this week when six players and four staff members tested positive for COVID-19. That forced the league to reshuffle the schedule, and, as a result, the remaining teams will advance to the knockout round.

Three U.S. national team players, the Reign’s Megan Rapinoe, Utah’s Christen Press and Portland’s Tobin Heath, opted out of the tournament. The NWSL allowed players to sit out over health concerns without losing their salaries.

New NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird acknowledged the concerns about COVID-19.

“The key is to be prepared and to make sure that everyone understands the importance of living by the tournament protocol, wearing your PPE, making sure that you’re using the facilities and sticking in the protective environment, which we are doing and plan to do over the tournament schedule,” Baird said. “So the whole key is mitigating risk, making sure that we are staying within our environment and making sure that we have the right plans in place.”

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