BUILD­ING ON SUC­CESS

THINGS ARE LOOK­ING UP FOR THE NWSL AND THE CHAL­LENGE CUP RUN­NER-UP RED STARS

Chicago Sun-Times - - RED STARS BEAT - BY AN­NIE COSTABILE | acosta­bile@sun­times.com | @an­niecosta­bile

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. ✶

GETTY IM­AGES

The Chal­lenge Cup fi­nal, in which the Red Stars lost 2-0 to the Hous­ton Dash, set an NWSL TV-rat­ings record.

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