- Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.
The Orlando Pride have withdrawn from the upcoming NWSL Challenge Cup after six players and four staffers tested positive for the coronavirus, a significant setback for a league attempting to become the first in American professional team sports to resume competition.
Orlando announced the decision Monday, six days before it was scheduled to play the Chicago Red Stars on the opening day of the tournament held in the Salt Lake City area. It said in a statement that all players and staff who tested positive remained asymptomatic.
“This was obviously a difficult and disappointing outcome for our players, our staff and fans, however this is a decision that was made in order to protect the health of all involved in the Challenge Cup,” said Orlando Pride executive vice president Amanda Duffy, who resigned as NWSL president in January. “While we were all excited to see the 2020 Pride on the field this weekend, our priority is now making sure our players and staff safely recover and providing any support wherever and however possible.”
• How the NWSL plans to be the first U.S. team sport back
NWSL teams were still in preseason in March when the coronavirus pandemic effectively shut down sports in the United States. After repeatedly postponing the start of its scheduled season, the league announced in late May that it would resume play with a tournament in Utah involving all nine teams.
Speaking at the time the tournament was announced in May, Dr. Daryl Osbahr, team doctor for Orlando Pride and a member of the NWSL’s medical task force, said it was inevitable that there would be positive tests but that the league put protocols in place that it hoped would allow for “not shutting down the tournament or necessarily a team by one positive result.”
Those protocols, which called for contact tracing and quarantining what were deemed high-risk contacts, apparently made it unfeasible for the Pride to travel to Utah and begin play.
“The decision goes far beyond just the positives, but also taking into consideration roommates or partners,” Osbahr said in a statement Monday. “I commend the club for its diligence and reaction following the initial positive test, as well as how the safety of players and staff was prioritized during this difficult and uncertain time. However the guidelines and process that are put in place, including the important protocols and timelines for contact tracing, make it logistically impossible for the club to participate in the Challenge Cup in Utah.”
The Pride said its players and staff received medical attention and would be isolated for at least 14 days. Those who may have had contact with the affected players and staff have been notified.
The NWSL announced last week that one player had tested positive for COVID-19 but did not identify the team or player.
The league did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday on how Orlando’s decision will affect the structure or schedule of the tournament. The league previously said it would announce finalized rosters Monday, with teams able to bring as many as 28 players.
The Portland Thorns and North Carolina Courage are scheduled to open the tournament on Saturday. The format called for each of the league’s nine teams to play four games in the preliminary phase, with the top eight teams advancing to the knockout rounds.
“The health and safety of our players and staff is our number one priority and our thoughts are with those players and staff fighting this infection, as well as the entire club in Orlando that have been impacted as a result,” NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird said in a statement. “We’re all obviously disappointed, but in the current environment, this is a situation that we have prepared for and we will now adjust our plans and schedules to reflect the circumstances.”
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