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Houston Dash's Jane Campbell on the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup and the Return of the League

Fans all around the world have been waiting eagerly for the return of professional sports after dealing with the postponement or canceling of events that were to be held in 2020 due to the Coronavirus Pandemic. Many elite athletes across the globe who also put in the work day in and day out for a chance to compete in front of a worldwide audience are also suffering the consequences of these postponements. For athletes in individual sports such as track and swimming that rely heavily on the Olympic cycle, will now have to wait another year to compete in the Olympic Games, also due to the Covid-19 Pandemic. Now, for athletes in team sports, such as football, basketball and soccer, things seem to be coming back to “normal” in terms of their championships and seasons slowly returning.

Luckily earlier this year, on June 1st, the Women's National Soccer League announced plans for a bubble-style tournament — 2020 Challenge Cup — beginning on June 27th. The world's premier women's soccer association — which employs all 23 of the current US Women's National Team players and many more international stars — took place in Utah, with 25 games taking place in full isolation of the athletes and staff without fans in attendance.

“The NWSL and our players are proud to lead the return to play in the confident and bold manner our fans have come to expect,” said NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird. “The NWSL Challenge Cup presented by P&G and their Secret deodorant brand will feature the best women soccer players in the world on an innovative stage built for the times. And thanks to CBS, more Americans than ever will be able to watch. I can’t wait to get started,” said Lisa, before the Challenge Cup took place, according to Deseret News.

As many sports leagues are returning and calling their setups a “bubble” in a single location as the pandemic continues on, the NWSL decided to call their setup in Utah a “village.” Following its name, indeed it took a village to see that the league became the first one in the United States to successfully return to play and do so safely.

According to the same article on Deseret News, it was entirely assumed that the Challenge Cup would be the last thing of the 2020 NWSL season, and that may well prove to be the case, although Baird said teams will almost surely be able to train again soon, as she left the door open for further competition this year in some fashion.

Athlete’s Corner:

Jane Campbell is a star goalkeeper for the Houston Dash of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) and is also a member of the U.S. Women’s National Team. Campbell has played for the Dash since being taken No. 15 overall in the 2017 NWSL College Draft. The former Stanford Cardinal is the team’s co-captain and has made 60 appearances for the club. She helped lead the Dash to three-straight shutout victories on the way to winning the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup last month. I had the opportunity of chatting with Jane about the challenge cup and her upcoming events.

How was being in the “village” in Utah for the Challenge Cup?

Jane: Being in the Village was definitely a unique experience. Being in one environment for a month with no breaks or escape was challenging. We are all used to having structure and rhythm, but when we are at home we get to hang with our dogs or go get a coffee. In the village, we had tons of structure and rhythm, but there wasn't much escape outside of the tournament and soccer. It was definitely more mentally taxing than physically for me, just trying to find ways to stay happy, excited, and not too focused while in the bubble was my toughest challenge. All in all, I'm so thankful I was able to take part in the tournament. Everyone was healthy and safe from staff to players and although it was unique, I loved every bit of it.

What was different about playing without an audience back to back?

Jane: Playing without fans was at first a bit strange. At kick off you could hear a pin drop in the stadium, or someone's conversation on the sideline. That aspect was quite different because we are used to hearing the drums, the fans screaming or booing, songs from the video board etc. In all honesty though, after the first few minutes of the first game, I sort of forgot about that aspect just because I was so focused on the game and my preparation and making sure my teammates were focused for what was ahead. I missed our fans dearly and we know how much it would've meant for them to be there in person, but we definitely felt their support throughout the tournament via social media, free coffees, or meals. Without them, being there for a month and winning wouldn't have been possible.

How was winning a major important championship during these times of few sports events happening?

Jane: Winning the Challenge Cup was awesome. Obviously the tournament was so different from the regular season, but a championship is a championship and the circumstances we were all under I feel like made the tournament that much more difficult. To be the first sports league back in the US and win our championship was also special. I feel it really put women's soccer on the map not just in our country but globally as well. We really wanted to win for the city of Houston because of the big hit it has been taking from COVID-19. We felt as though the tournament and our championship was much more than just a win in the soccer books, it brought a glimmer of hope and some happiness to everyone in Houston who have really been affected by this pandemic. So for us, winning was really special.

NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird said she’s looking forward to having conversations with governors and mayors about continuing play, and while local restrictions will always be honored, she said she hoped to show them that what was done in Utah and how they worked with the state and local officials to make sure that the protocols and ability to be in a place conformed to them. When the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup ended last month, there was talk of the league holding games this fall, mainly within regions. Nothing was ever for certain, especially as COVID-19 continues to spread in the U.S. But there were reports last week of the league beginning to plan upcoming games.

Do you have any updates on when you will start training as a team again and what are the Dash’s plans for the rest of the year?

Jane: We began our first day back at training today. We will train for 8 weeks together which will be great to get back into a groove again. We don't have any updates from the league at this point about games, but for now practice will do. Seeing everyone back on the field and connecting and having fun is always a blessing to be a part of. Hopefully we'll pick back up right where we left off!

When the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup ended last month, there was talk of the league holding games this fall, mainly within regions. Nothing was ever for certain, especially as COVID-19 continues to spread in the U.S. But there were reports last week of the league beginning to plan upcoming games.

Teams would be placed into pods with each team eventually hosting games for their respective pod. Games would begin September 5 in the DC area for Pod 1, followed by games in Houston and Portland on September 12 for Pods 2 and 3, then Chicago would host on September 19 for Pod 1. Houston and Utah Royals FC would hold games on September 26 for Pods 2 and 3. Sky Blue FC would host on October 3 for Pod 1, and then Orlando and OL Reign would wrap up their respective pods on October 10.

This is the latest proposal and much could change. We’ll keep following this story as it develops.

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