Last Friday, the Department of Homeland Security issued an order exempting foreign pro athletes from U.S. border restrictions that bar travelers from a range of countries.
This was good news, another step on the way toward American sports leagues returning to action.
But soccer fans weren’t quite celebrating. The order didn’t mention Major League Soccer or the National Women’s Soccer League, so it wasn’t clear if they were included. It took until Wednesday for both leagues to confirm that they are.
The DHS news release said the order “exempts certain foreign professional athletes who compete in professional sporting events organized by certain leagues, including their essential staff and their dependents, from proclamations barring their entry into the U.S.”
The order, in its legalese, listed "certain professional sporting groups organizing the United States’ largest sporting events, including Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Basketball Association (NBA), the Professional Golfers’ Association Tour (PGA Tour), the National Hockey League (NHL), the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) and the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA)."
And later in the order, acting secretary Chad F. Wolf said he would "work with" those groups "to identify the specific athletes, essential staff, team and league leadership, spouses, and dependents covered by this exemption."
The delay in confirmation surely wasn’t helped by the order landing on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend. Though an email to DHS hadn’t been answered as of when this article was published, an MLS spokesperson and NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird said their leagues are in the clear.
Both leagues would of course be interested, with players from all over the world taking part. It’s especially consequential for the NWSL, since some of its foreign players stayed out of the country while waiting for the season to start. The Orlando Sentinel reported that four Orlando Pride players — England’s Jade Moore, Scotland’s Claire Emslie, and Australia’s Alanna Kennedy and Emily van Egmond — are all still overseas.
“We’re working with our immigration attorney to clear the visas and make sure that our players who are still outside the United States are clear to come back in,” Baird said. “What was printed [in the order] was just a partial list of who would be in there, and we’re just making sure all the paperwork is done.”
The exemption also helps teams that are still trying to sign players, and in the NWSL’s case, that could include one of the biggest deals in league history. The Utah Royals are trying to land French national team starting goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi and Olympic-winning German playmaker Dzsenifer Marozsan, both superstars of powerhouse French club Lyon.
If the NWSL didn’t have the exemption, the players wouldn’t be able to get here — and that’s been a factor in negotiations. French radio station RMC Sport reported on Sunday that Bouhaddi might stay at Lyon because of “consequences of the coronavirus pandemic,” and Marozsan was pondering an offer from England’s Manchester City.
Lo and behold, on Wednesday Bouhaddi told Le Parisien that she’s in “very advanced discussions” with the Royals, and she’s deciding whether to come over now or in early 2021. Both players’ contracts in Lyon expire at the end of June, and the French league season was ended in late April due to the pandemic.
(Bouhaddi also announced the launch of a major fundraising initiative for coronavirus relief efforts in France.)
Tacoma, Wash.-based OL Reign were able to get their big foreign signing, Japanese midfielder Yuka Momiki, over the line. But they had a unique card to play, because Momiki holds a U.S. passport from being born in New York. The Reign are stuck without defender Celia Jiménez Delgado, who’s in her native Spain. Reign CEO Bill Predmore said.
MLS is in better shape with foreign players, because when the league shut down in March it ordered all of its players to stay in the U.S. Some teams have players loaned abroad, though, including the Union. Striker Cory Burke is at Austria’s St. Pölten until the end of June. Because he’s Jamaican, he would have been subject to the border restriction.
At least he’ll have a shot at some game time before coming back to Philadelphia, since Austria’s league will resume on June 2