SALT LAKE CITY — Like with other sports and leagues around the United States, the conversation surrounding the National Women’s Soccer League has evolved over the last three months. It has gone from shutting things down, to players dealing with being away from their sport, to hope things could come back soon, to real plans for a return to play.
Things have progressed one step further for the league, as its Challenge Cup — a month-long tournament to be held in Herriman and Sandy — begins on Saturday. The NWSL will become the first league in America to rev back up since March.
While actual gameplay will be the ultimate sign that there’s a sense of normalcy, players from tournament host Utah Royals FC say that being able to train as a full team for the past few weeks has been a huge step in the right direction.
“I think there was a huge boost when we were able to get into team training,” defender Rachel Corsie told media during a Zoom call last week. “I think, being honest, it obviously weighs heavily on players, just the day after day grind and the restrictions on being able to go out and to socialize.
“I think that’s a big part of just your lifestyle as a professional player and moving around, especially in the women’s game, and so I think there was a lot of inherent challenges within that, and I know that there was a huge amount of mental strain.”
In a video produced by the team last week, midfielder Vero Boquete echoed those sentiments.
"Happiness. It's just happiness." pic.twitter.com/eGYWAJCKKl— Utah Royals FC (@UtahRoyalsFC) June 18, 2020
“It’s just happiness,” she said, as footage showed players at practice in Sandy without masks, laughing and working hard. “It’s happiness because for so many weeks we were inside. We were at home, we couldn’t hang with each other, we couldn’t pass the ball with each other, so just now to be able to be on the field is great.”
At this point, Corsie said training “certainly looks normal,” and thanks to players doing the best they could to stay fit while at home, the team hasn’t had to spend time getting players in shape.
“The group itself is looking great,” she said. “I think (staying fit has had) a big impact, that physically we’re able to maintain a high standard, and that allows for us to now just focus really on the ball, and I think we’ve spent a lot of time over the last 10 days just building those relationships on the field. It’s been good.”
Boquete said that as happy as she and her teammates have been to be back out on the field, now the focus is on trying to win the tournament. The Champions Cup begins Saturday morning at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, when the two-time defending league champion NC Courage takes on Portland Thorns FC (URFC opens play on June 30 against the Washington Spirit).
“Obviously now we want to play good,” she said. “We want to do a good tournament. We want to win it, and we know that for that, it’s not just about feeling happy and to have fun is the most important, but now we also have to be focused on the things on the game.”
She feels the group is well on its way to doing that.
“Personally, I think that we are even better than we expected,” she said. “Everyone was really worried because during so many weeks we had to be at home and it was hard for us to stay fit, but we did our job. We are professionals, so there is no one that wants more than us to be fit, and then we just show up on the field and we were ready for trainings and we are ready for the tournament.”