Programming note: Watch the REACH Scholarship Awards hosted by Ronnie Lott and Brandi Chastain on Tuesday, June 23 at 5 p.m. on NBC Sports Bay Area and streaming here.
Soccer legend Brandi Chastain said she felt two competing instincts about the NWSL's scheduled return to the pitch later this week, which would make them the first professional team sports league in North America to begin or resume its season during the coronavirus pandemic.
As a former player, the longtime United States Women's National Team star said she'd be "chomping at the bit" to get back on the field if she was active.
As a parent and grandparent, she's concerned about safety.
"I'm thinking, 'Are we safe enough?' " Chastain, who will host the 24th annual REACH Youth Scholarship Awards on Tuesday at 5 p.m. on NBC Sports Bay Area, said in a video call Monday morning. "Like, I just want to be safe. I want to make sure that the players are safe. If we've taken the necessary precautions? Awesome. Let's go."
Safety was at the forefront of the league's mind Monday. Chastain spoke with NBC Sports Bay Area hours before NWSL announced that its Challenge Cup won't include Orlando Pride after six players and four staff members tested positive for the coronavirus. All 10 people were asymptomatic, the Pride said.
Orlando canceled training and began contact tracing after NWSL announced on June 18 that a player had tested positive for the virus, The Athletic's Meg Linehan reported Monday. Multiple Pride players visited an Orlando bar, sources told Linehan, and one of those players was the team's first to test positive. Orlando is in Phase 2 of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' re-opening plan, which allows for bars to open with 50 percent indoor seating capacity and full seating capacity outdoors. Orange County issued an executive order Saturday requiring face coverings, and Florida officially became one of seven states with over 100,000 infections on Monday.
The NWSL announced Tuesday that the Challenge Cup now is an eight-team tournament following Orlando's withdrawal. The tournament begins June 27, with empty-stadium matches at two venues near Salt Lake City. Teams will stay in area hotels and apartments, and NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird said last month that the league didn't want the players to be in an environment that felt "like a restriction."
Men's soccer leagues in Europe have resumed largely without incident over the last month, but the United States has more reported cases -- total and per 100,000 people -- than Germany, Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom. Chastain said she has watched many of the games overseas, often at "too early of an hour," but the inherent risk the virus poses still resides in the back of her mind.
"We don't know who's going to be safe, and we don't know who's going to be susceptible and no matter how many precautions we take, no one's going to be perfect," Chastain said Monday, hours before the Pride withdrew from the Challenge Cup. "And life has inherent risks, and if we are really attempting to be as diligent as we can be and go through all the protocols and the players are adhering to those protocols ... then I think we have a chance.
"But, that's hard because then you put human nature into the equation, and we all have different objectives and we all have different needs. It's not easy. It's not easy, but I'm hoping that these women will be great examples of how we could potentially do it in a way that can make us feel secure, and not only for the game itself as a greater good but also for the players themselves."
Coronavirus cases continue to climb in Utah, where the Challenge Cup is supposed to be held. Gov. Gary Herbert loosened statewide restrictions earlier this month, but health officials are urging the governor to reinstitute previous measures if the state fails to lower its daily average of new cases to 200 by July 1. Utah reported an increase of 444 new cases Monday.
Chastain told NBC Sports Bay Area that it would be fitting for NWSL to be the first professional league to return, considering that women were the first Americans to win a World Cup and an Olympic Gold Medal in soccer. Yet the players' health and well-being was her biggest concern, even before Orlando backed out of the tournament.
"I'm looking forward to celebrating them being back on the field," Chastain said of NWSL, "but I'm also praying that they'll be safe."