Five days before the NWSL Challenge Cup was scheduled to kick off, the league was rocked by a coronavirus outbreak among the Orlando Pride that forced the team to withdraw from the event on Monday.
Six players and four staff members tested positive, a statement from the NWSL said. Their identities are unknown.
“Following the testing of players and staff, who were all asymptomatic, it was determined that it would be in the best interest of the health and safety of the players, the staff and the rest of the league that the Pride voluntarily withdraw,” a statement from the team said.
If the tournament still goes ahead, the NWSL will be the first U.S. pro team sports league to play games after the coronavirus pandemic started. Its tournament is scheduled to start Saturday in suburban Salt Lake City. Orlando was to play the Chicago Red Stars on Saturday night in the second game overall.
“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,” NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird said.
Tournament rosters were due in on Sunday and an official announcement was expected Monday, but the announcement was delayed.
Teams can start arriving in Utah on Wednesday. Players can opt out without any repercussions, receiving their full salaries and benefits for the year.
The NWSL announced last Thursday that one unnamed player had tested positive. Equalizer Soccer reported Monday that multiple Pride players went out to bars and nightclubs after they were allowed to reopen in Florida. The Orlando Sentinel reported that the Pride petitioned the NWSL to be allowed to leave for Utah on June 17, but the request was denied.
Daryl Osbahr, the Pride’s team doctor, said the team’s decision to withdraw “goes far beyond just the positives [in testing], but also taking into consideration roommates or partners.”
Osbahr was on the NWSL’s medical committee that helped set up the protocols for the tournament. When the event was announced on May 27, he said there is no set number of positive tests that would stop games.
“While we were all looking forward to seeing the Pride return to the field, we are unfortunately facing a decision that is necessary and in the best interest for the health of our players and staff,” he said 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 are owned by the same organization that runs MLS’ Orlando City and its USL reserve team, but have their own training facility across town from where the men’s teams practice. The Pride’s statement said that among everyone who tested positive, “members did not have any direct interaction with any players or coaching staff” from the men’s teams.
That clears Pride star Sydney Leroux, who’s married to City star Dom Dwyer. They have two young children.
“I’m heartbroken,” Leroux wrote on Twitter. “The majority of our team & staff worked our asses off to put us in the best position to play the game we love again. Not just for ourselves but for our families, friends, fans & our city.”
Orlando’s roster is one of the NWSL’s most star-laden, with U.S. veterans Leroux, Alex Morgan (who was already out on maternity leave), Ali Krieger, Ashlyn Harris, and Emily Sonnett. Its international corps include Brazil’s Marta, Australia’s Alanna Kennedy, New Zealand’s Ali Riley, and England’s Jade Moore.
The team also has a player from the Philly area, West Chester native Phoebe McClernon. She was a second-round draft pick this year and signed her first pro contract over the weekend.
The MLS tournament starts July 8, and teams must arrive at least one week before their first game. All MLS teams will fly charter to Orlando, Fla., and will arrive at the city’s executive airport instead of its main commercial one. The Athletic reported that Orlando City will go into the Disney bubble on Thursday.