ABBY SMITH (ROBIN ALAM/ISI PHOTOS)

The NWSL Challenge Cup kicks off June 27th, making soccer the first team sport to return amidst coronavirus. We spoke to multiple NWSL players about their thoughts ahead of the tournament. Here’s what they had to say:

What is your overall outlook on the tournament?

“I think it’s exciting. It’s like a roller coaster of emotions really, because there’s so much going on, and so much goes into this, whether it’s with the player union, which I’ve been a part of, and then the NWSL, and no sports going on in general right now. Then trying to have this tournament. I do think the NWSL and the NWSLPA have worked really hard to get this going and make it as safe as possible.” — Lu Barnes, OL Reign

“I’m super excited about having an opportunity to play again. Yes, there’s an entertainment factor for everybody else, but this is still our job. Our job is to play, and it’s nice to be able to come back and have the opportunity to play games, because we’ve all been training to stay in shape and get touches on the ball. But obviously, it’s really hard to do that for an extended period of time, not knowing if you’re going to have games. So I think the league did a really good job with trying to come up with the best option for us, just given the circumstances. And I think a lot of people are really excited just to have something.” — Abby Smith, Utah Royals FC

“We are all super excited about the tournament. Our offseason really has been eight months of preparing, running, lifting and training on our own. Obviously with the pandemic it’s really frustrating that we couldn’t have a normal season. But we’re super stoked that the commissioner and all the owners and coaches got together and figured out at least something for this year. And they’ve done a really good job with all the safety protocols. It’s going to be a really great opportunity to keep growing the league and hopefully getting us more TV time for the future.” — Paige Nielsen, Washington Spirit

There’s been some pushback from those who think the league is rushing back. Is there anything you’re nervous about?

“Obviously the scariest thing is probably just the unknowns. That’s what’s scary in life in general, but especially during the circumstances that are given. But the OL Reign have been super informative, super transparent, whether it’s good, bad, whatever. They’ve just been super honest with us. So as a group, you just feel more comfortable when you have more information and you can just better make a decision for yourself.” — Barnes

“Obviously, there were some concerns with COVID, and how quickly the tournament’s coming up, but I think that in the grand scheme of things, a lot of people are just so excited to get back on the field. And the league has taken the initiative of making sure that we’re getting tested frequently and making sure that we’re socially distancing and staying in quarantine, and that everybody is taking this as seriously as possible. And also respecting the fact that it’s a very sensitive time for the rest of the world. I think they’ve done a really good job with reassuring us that they’re taking all the steps necessary, and then also providing us with the opportunity to play.” — Smith

“I know there’s been some negative backlash about how we’re the guinea pigs of live sports in this pandemic. But I just want people to know that I think we’re going to do the best we can with safety protocols. And we’re all itching to do our job, which is to play soccer. Everyone is slowly going back to work, not just athletes, and no one knows the correct way to do it, but we’re going to do it in the best we can and safest way possible.” — Nielsen

LU BARNES (WILF THORNE/ISI PHOTOS)
What are your thoughts about playing without fans? 

“It’s obviously so strange. I’ve been playing professional for eight years, and you always have fans pretty much at every game even if the weather’s terrible, or whatever the circumstances are. Still, with or without fans, as a professional athlete, what drives us is our competitiveness and the will to win. I feel like that’s all still there, which will make the games exciting. I’m still counting on getting the usual adrenaline rush.” — Barnes

“I think that’s going to be a bit weird, to be perfectly honest. In preseason you have the scrimmages where you don’t have people there, but I’ve never been in a situation where it’s been completely empty. I have been watching the Bundesliga, and the stadium’s completely empty. You can hear everything. That’s honestly so interesting to me how they’re making it work. But I also think that they are at the forefront of everything, showing that it is possible to play and not have fans, and it can still work for the players and the staff.” — Smith

What has the communication been like with your team? 

It’s been great, honestly. I think we’ve actually had one of the best communications. I’ve talked to other players, and I know it hasn’t been great across the board. But we’ve done Zoom calls for the last two months together as a team and with our coaches. They let us know that players could go home if they had to go home, if they didn’t feel safe. And we’ve done maybe small group training sessions the past couple weeks. And they made sure to tell everyone that it’s not mandatory as long as they feel safe. So even leading up to this tournament they’ve done a really good job.” — Nielsen

“Our player reps have been very on top of everything, making sure that we know as much information as possible, whenever it becomes available. Our team has been very aware of other states and their circumstances. I feel like we’ve done a really good job with making sure that we’re following the rules and wiping everything down and being very, very cautious, because even though the numbers have been low in Utah, we’re still trying to stay on top of everything that we need to take care of.” — Smith

PAIGE NIELSEN (RANDY LITZINGER/GETTY IMAGES)
What do you expect from yourself and/or your teammates after such a long layoff? 

“I do think we’re going to be a little bit crazy right off the bat. We have a lot of new players this year, and I don’t know how cohesive we will be. But we’ve been doing Zoom calls to try and get close to each other. We actually had the opportunity to go to Florida before the pandemic started, and so we all got to go each other there as persons and personalities. But I think with the tournament having so many games in a short period of time, I don’t know if we will get to our style that we want to play. It’s just going to be who has the biggest heart at that moment.” — Nielsen

“I’m ready. I feel like I was a little bit nervous, but I’m ready to get going, and I think it’s the good nerves, the kind you get when you’re excited to get back with your teammates and play.” — Smith