Building on success: Things are looking up for the NWSL and the Challenge Cup runner-up Red Stars

HERRIMAN, UTAH – JULY 18: Kealia Watt #2 of Chicago Red Stars celebrates with her teammates after scoring a penalty kick against the OL Reign FC in the quarterfinal match of the NWSL Challenge Cup at Zions Bank Stadium on July 18, 2020 in Herriman, Utah. | Getty

If this year had been typical in any fashion, the league would’ve been benefitting from the momentum established in the Tokyo Olympics. Instead, it’s the Challenge Cup the NWSL is building from.

The Challenge Cup final set a National Women’s Soccer League TV-ratings record: 653,000 viewers watched the Houston Dash’s 2-0 victory Sunday against the Red Stars on CBS.

It was the second-most watched soccer game of the day, falling in behind Manchester United’s 2-0 win over Leicester City, which secured its return to the Champions League.

The ratings were the cherry on top of a tournament that concluded without a case of COVID-19 being contracted by any player, coach or league member.

“That was the promise we made to the players,” Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler said. “We would adhere to all the protocols and return you safely home.”

The players returned to Chicago on Monday. Some will undergo COVID-19 testing before returning to their homes outside of Illinois. The next few weeks will serve as a much-needed moment to decompress from the lockdown lifestyle in Utah.

The expectation is that training will resume in mid-August. As for any regular season, the NWSL board of directors held a meeting during the last week in Utah, and there are still a lot of questions to be answered and circumstances to be considered.

“If you look at anything like a traditional shortened schedule, it looks very challenging,” Whisler said. “Maybe even impossible.”

Unless there’s a dramatic turnaround in COVID-19 cases in every market the NWSL plays in, a traditional 2020 season isn’t possible, Whisler said.

First, the NWSL does not have the budget to charter private planes, and asking players to take commercial flights is not a consideration. COVID-19 restrictions vary by state and would require teams flying into certain markets to quarantine for a period and would remove another set of markets from hosting games completely.

If the league does resume play, it would likely begin sometime between September and October in what Whisler described as pod play. The idea is that three or four teams based on proximity and COVID-19 rules and regulations would come into a market and play in a bracket-style series of games.

This would limit travel and afford the players a less restrictive lifestyle in comparison to the bubble in Utah.

And despite the challenges the players faced in Utah, they still want to return to play.

The Athletic was first to report that NC Courage and U.S. national-team midfielder Sam Mewis was headed to the FA Women’s Super League to play for Manchester City, and USWNT teammate Rose Lavelle could be joining her.

As far as the Red Stars, Whisler confirmed that several players had received interest and will sign contracts to play overseas this fall. He explained the organization is in full support of its players continuing their development.

“It’s not players fleeing who don’t want to be in our environment,” Whisler said. “There are players that need time on the ball.”

Whether there’s a 2020 fall season or not, the NWSL is in a great position to continue developing.

If this year had been typical in any fashion, the league would’ve been benefitting from the momentum established in the Tokyo Olympics. Instead, it’s the Challenge Cup the NWSL is building from. Many of the sponsors the league partnered with for the Challenge Cup were tournament-based, but Whisler said the increased interest has been remarkable.

Whisler, who has been in sole control of the Red Stars since 2011, is hopeful he can build a high-profile, well-funded ownership group such as Los Angeles’ Angel City.

“Gone are the days of little independents holding this league together,” Whisler said.

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