NWSL Challenge Cup a return to normalcy and a chance for change

    World Cup winner Abby Dahlkemper is currently competing in the NWSL Challenge Cup with two-time defending league champion North Carolina Courage. The monthlong tournament now underway in Utah marks the return of professional team sports leagues in the United States after sports were halted worldwide because of the coronavirus pandemic. The former NWSL defender of the year agreed to share her perspective on life in the bubble in Utah and the start of the tournament.

    If you travel a lot for work, you know the problem I encounter each trip. Is it worth the time and effort to completely unpack your bag, fill the closet and pretend some hotel room is home for a few days or even weeks? Or do you not bother pretending and just live out of the suitcase?

    I usually end up splitting the difference, some things unpacked and others left in the bag. But I need to see everything in front of me. I need to be organized. Really organized. Like almost obsessively organized.

    I need to know where everything is and keep it nice and neat. And clean. Yes, I was all about clean way before the current moment made it a necessity. Like making my bed. I don’t really remember if I always did this as a kid. Maybe it came with age. My mom is probably rolling her eyes right now, but you can be sure I make the bed every morning here in Utah.

    It’s a control thing, I guess. It’s as if keeping things put together makes me feel like I have control of something.

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    Being in control is a challenge in 2020. Coronavirus made it a challenge for us to even get on the field this summer in the NWSL. The pandemic challenges us every day to be safe and smart and adhere to health protocols.

    And then George Floyd’s death, like Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and far too many people of color who are killed for no reason, challenged us in a different way. This moment challenged all of us to speak up and hold our country to a higher standard.

    This time in our lives is like nothing else. So we may be in a bubble out here for the next month, but we’re still a part of this moment in history. That’s just 2020.

    If people want to know what it is like for us out here, well, the bubble you hear about all the time with sports returning is definitely the right word. Believe me, we miss all of you in the stands, and we hear you supporting us from afar. But unfortunately a bubble is the safe choice for now.

    Being able to feel like my health was going to be protected was definitely very important to me in making the decision to play this summer. I needed to feel like the league had my health at the forefront of the NWSL’s intentions. I think they have done a good job with that by putting protocols in place, with a lot of input from the unions for the national team and all of the players in the NWSL. And once I thought I could be comfortable and safe — that I was going to be put in a bubble and be able to stay in this bubble — then I made my decision to participate.

    That doesn’t mean those protocols are always pleasant. If you haven’t had one of the coronavirus tests where they insert the long nasal swab farther into your nose than anyone wants to think about, yeah, it’s as unpleasant as it looks. And as someone who has had a bunch of them — we get tested every couple of days — you never get used to that feeling.

    The setup out here feels a little bit like an extended national team camp, living in the same hotel for weeks, spending time with your teammates, short van rides over to the field. The normal routines that are important for humans in general but especially for us as athletes. You probably wouldn’t find life here between the games very exciting. Like Monday, we had the day off after our opening win Saturday against Portland. So I slept in a bit (we all have our own rooms, which is a nice change from the norm), went down for coffee and breakfast and then hung out with my teammates pretty much until lunch. Meals are prepared for us, although we can do Door Dash or Uber Eats for specific cravings — anything that offers contactless delivery.

    I had some treatment because, as a professional athlete, you can’t afford to stop taking care of your body no matter what else is going on in the world. And we had a meeting later in the day.

    Like I said, it is really all about finding a routine. But it isn’t always exciting.

    There is a lot of time with the team, but that’s a good thing. The Courage are really close. That translates on the field, it helps us on the field. It builds trusts. We have a lot of trust in each other. We’ve created this culture, this belief system. We really do love each other. We’re a family off the field and on the field. That’s come over time — and over time spent together. So the time we have right now off the field can be as important as the time we have on the field.

    But the circumstances with the pandemic also make this different from any camp or road trip or tournament I’ve experienced. How could they not? We’re always health conscious with the pandemic going on, being very aware of social distancing, washing your hands, wearing your mask and just following all of the protocols.

    I’m never really thinking about the virus when I’m on the field — there is too much to focus on with the task at hand — but obviously there is anxiety off the field. I’m trying to take every safety precaution. Personally, I can only do what I can do. You have to trust everyone around you that they’re doing their best as well. That’s important.

    Have I been nervous about the virus? Sure, definitely. Who hasn’t over the past few months? I know that has been a common theme from my teammates and everyone around us.

    But the world is in kind of a crazy state right now. It hasn’t really seen anything like this before. At the end of the day, we’re just trying to do our best to be safe.

    The pandemic is only part of what’s going on in the world right now, of course. And while we’re trying to isolate ourselves from the virus here in Utah, my teammates and I can’t and don’t want to wall ourselves off from the movement for social justice that is taking place. That’s why you saw players from both the Courage and Thorns agree to kneel during the national anthem Saturday.

    We took the knee to protest racial injustice, police brutality and systemic racism against Black people and people of color in America. We love our country, but we took the opportunity to hold it to a higher standard. I think it was a really special moment: To not only be able to be the first professional league back in America but to be on CBS and have all 22 starters kneel respectfully. To be able to demand that this country be better. I think it’s our duty to demand that the liberties and freedoms that this country was founded on are extended to everyone.

    I want to try and use my platform to create change. I want to use my voice and to impact people in the best way I know how, and to unapologetically speak my mind and speak for the changes that we need to see. I think that’s something that maybe I haven’t done before. Maybe because I was scared because I was too young or, I don’t know, scared to say the wrong thing.

    But my teammates have inspired me, specifically the older girls have inspired me. This movement and these protests have inspired me. I think it’s finally time to put your foot down and demand change in a positive way. It’s going to be uncomfortable, but it has to happen.

    I watched the second game Saturday between Chicago and Washington and, like everyone, I saw the emotion in Julie Ertz and Casey Short during the national anthem. Those are two of the most kindhearted, nicest people I know. I don’t know much detail on what specifically was going on in that moment, but that was so moving. I think pictures tell a thousand words.

    There is no secret that there needs to be change in this world. Soccer is that platform for me and for my teammates.

    At the same time, for me, the game can create a little bit of normalcy in my life, I guess. Even during the quarantine and whatnot, soccer was an escape from the anxiety and the worries of the virus and the pandemic and everything that was going on and everything that 2020 has brought thus far.

    The altitude, heat and artificial turf were a challenge Saturday, but it felt really good to be back on the field playing a game instead of scrimmaging teammates. It felt good to play soccer again, especially after Lynn Williams and Sam Mewis teamed up for the winner in stoppage time.

    It’s exciting to be back playing, even if it’s definitely under very unique circumstances in a very unique year.

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