BRYAN BYERLY/ISI PHOTOS

Jasmyne Spencer is a forward for OL Reign of the NWSL. Spencer previously played for the Orlando Pride, Western New York Flash, and the Washington Spirit as well as in Australia’s W-League and in the Cyprus and Danish professional leagues. Below, she spoke with Just Women’s Sports about her time in the NWSL bubble and how OL Reign is gelling under new coach Farid Benstiti.

How has life in the NWSL bubble been? What has surprised you about the whole bubble experiment? 

The most surprising thing is how smoothly it’s all been running. And I know that has a lot to do with the league and how well Utah has done as a host. But also our staff has been incredible, particularly our Assistant GM. We’ve been calling her our ‘Tournament MVP’ because she is just crushing it — making sure we have all of the resources possible, anything we need to make this our home away from home. I think we were all hesitant about what life in the bubble was going to look like. We’ve been doing this for two months now, because we were in a bubble in Montana and then relocated. But her and our staff have been so good about making it all as smooth as possible.

Has everyone been following the rules? How has it been with the protocols?

Everyone has been good. When the pandemic first broke out, everyone was concerned so we had pretty strict protocols in the state of Washington. By the time we got into this specific bubble, we had already become accustomed to following the protocols back in our home city. I think it gets a little tricky now because we are obviously in a hotel, and there are regular guests coming in and out. So we have to be conscious of limiting our interactions with them — sometimes we have to jump off elevators because we’re not allowed to ride with them. And then the tournament testing protocol is very, very thorough. I think that has helped ease any extra anxiety that players have because we get tested so frequently.

What about leaving the facilities? 

We’re not allowed to leave our hotel. We’re allowed to walk in the general vicinity if we wear a mask and social distance. But beyond that, we’re not allowed to go anywhere. We’re transported to and from the hotel for lunches and training and anything else that would take place outside of the hotel. We have to be driven in our team-issued vans by our admin. It’s pretty strict. But once the games start, we are so tired and focused on taking care of our bodies that honestly there’s no real downtime when you would want to do much more than just recover and get ready for the next game.

The gameplay has been exceptional so far. A lot of people have been surprised to see just how cohesive teams look with so little preparation. What do you think accounts for that?

This league has always been very competitive, so it’s been fun to get back into it. I do think it’s been a crazier version as far as how competitive everyone’s been. It’s a testament to how dedicated and professional everyone has been in being able to stay fit and focused, training most of the time on their own for those past couple of months. It’s a testament to all of the players and the coaches for doing their homework off the field and making the right tactical decisions.

For us, we have a new coach, a lot of new players, and a lot of players returning from injuries last season. We are for sure still working the kinks out, but the beauty of this tournament is that we all get to go to the quarter finals. So we get these four group stage games to work out the kinks and grow into the tournament. It’s pretty cool.

How has it been playing without fans?

It’s been strange, but also women’s soccer is definitely still in the growing phase. I think all of us can remember a time where you were playing in professional or semi pro games with little to no fans in the stands. We for sure miss them and wish they could be here with us. But at the same time, it’s familiar territory. We’re just trying to put on the best show we can and hope that people are tuning in from home.

Well, they definitely are. I think there were almost 600,000 viewers on CBS for the opening matchups. What do you think it means for the future of the league that people are tuning in to watch?

It’s incredible. I think we really took advantage of being one of the first sports back in this country. The sport has been growing on a national level and on the world stage, and a lot of people have become interested in women’s soccer. The tournament is just another step in showcasing our talents to the world. It’s going to be huge for women’s soccer going forward.

You mentioned playing with a new coach this season and new teammates. How has that been so far, and what are your expectations for the rest of the tournament?

It’s been great. Farid [Benstiti] has done a really good job of trying to build a family-oriented environment, especially in this crazy situation that we’ve all been thrust into. With everything going on outside of soccer, we’ve really been able to come together and be a strong united front. And I think it’s going to help us go far in the tournament. We obviously want to win, but this game is crazy and this league is crazy, so we focus on one game at a time. We’ve always prided ourselves on being a stingy defense and that old saying, “Defense wins championships,” is so real. The goals will come. They always come at some point, especially when you need them the most. If we can really just be stingy in our defense and limit the amount of opportunities that other teams can create, then we know that we’ll give ourselves the best chance of winning in the end.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add? 

The only thing I would add is that it’s been really great to be able to use my platform. This moment in time has given us all, but me especially, a greater reach with the Black Lives Matter movement since there are not too many sports being showcased right now. It’s nice to have you guys giving us another opportunity to use our platforms and share really great messages with the world, so thank you.

On that note, why do you think it’s so important for athletes, specifically, to speak up about social justice issues, especially Black Lives Matter?

As athletes, we have the unique opportunity for our voices to be heard more frequently than say someone who isn’t in the limelight. As female professional athletes, we don’t often have as big of a platform as our male counterparts. But right now, we are one of the only sports that people are going to watch, so it’s given us a chance to elevate and use our voices.