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NWSL players adapt to Olympic postponement, expect fierce club season after coronavirus shutdown ends

Players throughout the league are focusing on staying positive and improving their fitness as they grapple with the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics.

Canada's Shelina Zadorsky, front, represents the Orlando Pride in the NWSL. (Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)

The weeks following the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics left national team players throughout the NWSL reeling.

“The first word that comes to mind is ‘roller coaster,’” Canadian and Orlando Pride defender Shelina Zadorsky said.

New Zealand captain and Orlando Pride defender Ali Riley said she cried when the news first broke — not from disappointment, but from the sheer realization the disaster powerful enough to change the course of an Olympic Games.

“When things like this are announced, it’s still pretty overwhelming,” Riley said. “It’s just another concrete kind of factor that’s showing how much stress our world is in and how serious this is and that this really is such a big crisis. It wasn’t surprising, but it was still sad and it still makes you worry about where we’re headed over the next few months.”

Reframing expectations

Prior to the postponement, 10 teams had qualified for the 12 spots at the Tokyo Olympics. The Games meant something different to each of those squads and their postponement will now cause a ripple effect for players throughout NWSL.

For the Canadian national team, the quick turnaround to the Olympics was a chance to bury the memory of a disappointing finish last summer at the World Cup. The Canadians fell in the first match of the knockout stage, an early exit Canadian and Houston Dash forward Nichelle Prince said immediately motivated the team to bounce back in Tokyo.

Traditionally, the Olympics are the Canadian team’s comfort zone — the squad won bronze medals in 2012 in London and in 2016 in Brazil. With a large group of departing veterans, the team’s focus was on earning a podium finish to send off players who were planning to retire at the end of 2020.

“We’ve always had mixed emotions because obviously our World Cup performances have not been where we think our caliber should be at,” Canadian and OL Reign midfielder Rebecca Quinn said. “I think the Olympics are exciting times for us because we performed in back-to-back ones with London and Rio. I think we have confidence going in that those are opportunities that we seem to be thriving in.”

For smaller countries like New Zealand, the Olympics offer a critical chance to build as both a team and a federation.

The Olympics have previously offered break-out opportunities for New Zealand that haven’t happened during the World Cup. The team made it to the quarterfinals in 2012 before falling to the U.S., which went on to win gold.

As a captain, Riley’s goal was to lead her team to a similar record-breaking run, this time to the semifinals.

Regardless of the results, her team knows the Olympics offer a high profile platform.

“Being from a small nation, it’s a chance to bring attention and inspiration to the little girls who maybe will take up soccer because they watch us,” Riley said. “It helps, too, to get more funding and more exposure, which are things that we really, really need as a team and a federation.”

One of the strongest storylines of the Tokyo Olympics is that of the U.S., which will look to make history as the first team to win the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics back-to-back.

There are plenty of reasons no one has accomplished the feat, but perhaps the biggest one is the physical toll of managing the 11-month turnaround from the World Cup to the Olympics. Besides a month-long break in December — during which time many players were embroiled in the team’s lawsuit with U.S. Soccer — this postponement offers the first chance for the Americans to take a breath since winning the World Cup in France during the summer.

U.S. captain and Sky Blue FC forward Carli Lloyd said the extra time will only make the team better, allowing players appropriate time to recuperate and develop under new coach Vlatko Andonovski.

“For me personally, you know I’m excited, because it’s more opportunity to train, more opportunity to get more fit, more time to prepare,” Lloyd said. “I think for our team, especially with Vlatko and a new coaching staff, there wasn’t much time to prepare and now he’s going to get more time with us and we all have kind of gotten a recharge and a break.”

The Americans aren’t the only ones emphasizing optimism throughout the postponement. Canadian coaches told their team to focus on reframing their mindset. Canada and Sky Blue FC keeper Kailen Sheridan said this readjustment will allow the team to set its goals even higher than just finishing on the podium.

For Prince, this means using the extra time to continue recovering from a right knee injury that sidelined her for the second half of the 2019 NWSL season.

Riley, meanwhile, is using the extra time to focus on building her ankle strength and hip mobility. These fine details can sometimes get lost in the rush of balancing club and national team duties.

“It’s another year to get into the best shape of my life,” Riley said.

Riley noted a key to maintaining physical fitness throughout this time is to also monitor her mental health. Amid the anxiety and agitation of the suspended NWSL season, players found different ways to fill their days.

Quinn brought her twin sister out of retirement, bringing her along to the park to train and run drills. Zadorsky learned how to cook new recipes and got hooked on the Netflix show “Ozark.” Sheridan completes puzzles every morning and is teaching herself to play guitar.

“I actually haven’t been bored this whole time so far,” Sheridan said.

Refocusing on the NWSL

Most NWSL teams are using Zoom and other forms of social media to stay close while practicing self isolation. Sheridan and Zadorsky both noted their club teams feel particularly tight-knit despite the forced distance, talking regularly in group chats and during calls.

Still, nothing compares to the companionship of a practice. Many players said they miss a small part of training — playing 5-v-2 during warm-ups, taking the time to joke around and catch up with their teammates.

“It’s a little lonely,” Zadorsky said. “I really just miss interacting with the people I love the most. I’m such a social person and I thrive from that interaction. I miss my teammates, my coaches, even just going out and connecting with other individuals.”

Although players are eager to dive back in, they’re quick to balance their expectations with caution. Quinn said she hopes the league will remain adaptable, emphasizing the safety of fans and players before trying to kick off the 2020 season.

Whenever those games are played, players agreed the hiatus will only increase the intensity on the pitch, particularly without a midseason international break for the Olympics.

“I think it’ll be incredibly competitive,” Sheridan said. “I think having our top players in the league longer is going to make it more competitive, and the players who normally fill in those places when we’re gone … they’ll be stepping up, giving us a run throughout the entire season. Two years ago, we saw a really high level of competition where the teams were so tight, and I think we’re gonna see that again this year.”

Last year, Prince said the midseason break for the World Cup left many international players in limbo for most of the NWSL season. Despite disappointment over the Olympic postponement, she said the quality of the league play will benefit from international players across the NWSL focusing fully on their clubs.

Although there are concerns for the league if the suspension is extended into the fall, players are confident teams and fans will roar back when it’s safe to play again.

“I think it just builds the momentum,” Sheridan said. “It’ll just add a little bit more suspense to what’s to come and to know that our supporters are behind us and to let them know that we are still there for them when it comes back.”

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