For starters, some of the faces have changed. Longtime leader in the midfield McCall Zerboni was shipped up to Sky Blue FC in a trade that netted the back-to-back champs a promising and versatile defender in Hailie Mace. Heather O’Reilly has retired and a few other players are still trickling into camp after fulfilling national team or W-League duties.
And then, there’s the elephant on the pitch. The thing that’s been at the front of everyone’s mind this past week.
As the coronavirus continues to spread, its impact is rippled through the sports world this week and the NWSL did not go untouched.
“We think it’s important for our team to make sure we take as many precautions as we can,” Courage coach Paul Riley said. “Who knows where everyone is going to be in a month from now, but for us, we keep plugging along. We got a great first week of practice. We’ll have to take it day by day.”
The Courage were one of the few NWSL clubs that allowed media access to training Friday, but interviews had to be conducted with 10 feet between the reporter and the subject. It’s one of several things the club and its players are still growing accustomed to as they grapple with the disease.
Late Friday evening, the NWSL announced it would suspend all training sessions through Sunday and “will continue to review training protocols in the wake of COVID-19.” The league has already suspended all of its preseason matches leading up to the start of the 2020 season, which is still slated to begin April 18.
“It was shocking,” Courage defender Hailey Harbison said of the league canceling the preseason. “But I feel like it makes sense to keep everyone safe and to make sure everyone’s healthy before we actually get into it and playing”
In an effort to be extra cautious, the Courage aren’t using shared water bottles during practice and have instead opted for one-time use plastic cups. The team is also no longer sharing pinnies, the thin practice jerseys worn over the top of training uniforms during drills and scrimmages.
Additionally, players are not showering at the team facility at WakeMed Soccer Park and are limiting the time they spend in the locker room, in general.
What has been perhaps most difficult for this tightly-knit group of players – most of whom have been playing together since Riley took the reins of the club, then named the Western New York Flash, in 2016 – is its self-imposed ban on high-fives. Now, a simple head nod or an elbow bump will do for congratulations or a bit of encouragement.
“There’s little things that we’re doing differently, like we don’t high-five each other, which is really hard,” Harbison said. “We’re usually high-fiving each other after like, literally everything we do. We don’t really have much time in the locker room. … Our water situation is a little different. Other than that, we’re still playing the same, still coming out and practicing the same.”
While Lynn Williams and Sam Mewis returned to training Friday, the team is still awaiting the arrival of other U.S. national team players in Jessica McDonald, Abby Dahlkemper and Crystal Dunn, who are spending time with family.
The Courage are also missing Kristen Hamilton, who was a league MVP finalist a year ago. She will re-join the team when her season with the Western Sydney Wanderers in the Australian W-League is over. Ally Watt, the Courage’s first-round 2020 draft pick out of Texas A&M is still playing in Australia too, with the Melbourne Victory. She remains unsigned by the Courage, but Riley said he expects her in camp around March 28.
For Canadian goalkeeper Stephanie Labbe and Brazilian midfielder Debinha, it could be a little while longer before they actually start training with the Courage. Both players recently played national team games in France, which is one of the several countries hit with a Level 3 health notice issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention because of the spread of the coronavirus. Riley said the players will begin a 14-day self-quarantine when they arrive in North Carolina.
Irish midfielder Denise O’Sullivan won’t have to self-quarantine because her recent national team games were in Ireland and Montenegro, countries not on the CDC’s list. Australia also is not on the CDC’s list, so Hamilton and Watt are in the clear.
“I’ve been in touch with all of them,” Riley said. “We’re going to try and keep Steph in Canada for an extra few days and then they’re under quarantine as soon as they get back, self-imposed basically from our team. … We need to take care of what we can take care of, and they know that and they understand that. I think it’s better being here than being stuck in Europe, so let’s get them back and get them sorted out here.”
The NWSL has an advantage that MLS, USL and other leagues haven’t had in that its season starts later. If needed, the NWSL can delay the start of its season, rather than starting play and then postponing it.
But there hasn’t yet been an indication the start of the season will be pushed back. So, the Courage are going about their business as usual, minus the high-fives.
“I’ve prepared all the sessions for next week, but who knows if we’re actually going to be able to do those sessions. We’ll take it as it comes,” Riley said. “Right now, we’re just following the league protocol and doing the best we can with the protocol we’ve put in place for the players. Fingers crossed, go with the flow, I guess.”