NC Courage, off to 3-0 start, adjust to Challenge Cup bubble

The NWSL tournament, being played in Utah, is the first team sports event in the United States since the COVID-19 pandemic began

North Carolina Courage midfielder Debinha takes a shot during the first half of the team's NWSL Challenge Cup soccer match against the Portland Thorns FC on June 27 at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah. The Courage are 3-0 to start the tournament. (Rick Bowmer / AP Photo)

People from all walks of life in all areas of the country are getting used to a “new normal” as America negotiates its way through a coronavirus pandemic that has disrupted virtually every aspect of life.

For the members of the North Carolina Courage, there’s at least one that hasn’t changed. It’s the time they get to spend together practicing and playing soccer.

And they’re doing it as well as ever.

The Courage are off to a 3-0 start in the preliminary round of the eight-team National Women’s Soccer League Challenge Cup, the first team sports event to be played in the U.S. since play was halted by the COVID-19 outbreak in mid-March.

“It’s like very normal,” veteran forward Jessica McDonald said in a Zoom interview with the North State Journal. “It’s as if we were at the beginning of a normal season. The first few games are a little shaky and then we improve game-by-game. That’s sort of what we’ve been doing here. There was a little rust at first, but we keep upping it a notch.”

Even though the defending NWSL champions are still unbeaten in the tournament, which is being held in a suburb of Salt Lake City, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

Two of the first three games have been decided either late in regulation play or in extra time — including the opening game on June 27. The winning goal by Lynn Williams didn’t come until the 94th minute.

After a 2-0 victory against the Washington Spirit on July 1, the Courage went down to the wire again before coming away with a 1-0 triumph against Red Stars. The only goal scored in that game came in the 81st minute by Abby Erceg.

“We’re getting to know each other again on the field,” McDonald said. “We’re getting to know each other’s strengths all over again,”

McDonald and her teammates have plenty of time to get reacquainted, both on and off the field.

Because of precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among the players taking part in the tournament, they’re all being quarantined in a virtual “bubble” for the duration of the event — which runs through July 26.

McDonald said that she and her teammates keep themselves busy when they’re not on the field by playing cards and board games, watching television and scouting their upcoming opponents.

As the only mother on the team, the former UNC star and current U.S. National Team member is also playing the role of home-school teacher for her 8-year-old son who accompanied her to Utah.

The Courage has plenty of time to kill right now with their final preliminary round game, against Sky Blue FC, not scheduled until Monday.

Fighting boredom and staying sharp on the field, however, isn’t the team’s only concern.

Despite the safety precautions being taken by the NWSL, McDonald said that the threat of COVID-19 is a concern that is never far from the players’ minds.

“It’s all the time,” she said. “We could simply go to the grocery store (and be exposed). We’re wearing masks, but we’re kind of stepping on eggshells everywhere we go. We’re being very careful day in and day out, but it’s very intimidating. We didn’t really know what this thing is.

“But I think everyone here in this bubble is doing their part, being as safe as possible and staying out of the public as much as we can. There’s not a lot to do here, anyway.”

While the players might be as isolated as possible from the coronavirus, they’re not immune to the impact of other major events taking place in the outside world.

That includes support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“We all spoke about it before our first game, because every team wanted to do the same thing,” McDonald said. “They were very good discussions. It was nice to see my teammates ask questions and get on board with everything.”

According to Courage coach Paul Riley, the events going on around the world, especially in this country, make the Challenge Cup a much more important event than it might otherwise have been.

“At the end of the day for us, it’s great to be on the big stage with the team again, on TV and all the rest of it,” he said in an interview before the start of the tournament. “I think it’s hugely important for the sport and really for the country, in general, to get sports going.”

As unified as the Courage is when it comes to both soccer and social issues, it’s anybody’s guess how long they’ll be able to stay together. The NWSL schedule beyond the Challenge Cup has yet to be determined and there is a real possibility that the season will be either canceled or delayed because of issues such as travel.

Due to that uncertainty, McDonald said that she and her teammates are savoring every moment they have while they still have games to play.

“It’s nice to go out and work because we love what we do,” she said. “We love to compete. Not much has really changed. We’re just in a different state. We still go out to the field and play.”