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Red Stars are back in action, though there are risks

The Red Stars open the NWSL Fall Series on Saturday without the safety of a bubble, but the players are thrilled to compete again.

2020 NWSL Challenge Cup - Championship - Houston Dash v Chicago Red Stars
Sarah Gorden and the Red Stars return to the field Saturday in the NWSL Fall Series.
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Red Stars return to game action Saturday, but the safety provided while playing in the NWSL Challenge Cup bubble is gone.

The team opens the NWSL Fall Series on the road against the Washington Spirit, which meant two commercial flights and a one-night hotel stay.

While players had flown in and out of their team’s cities at the beginning of the season and again after the Challenge Cup, travel is a concern for players and coach Rory Dames.

“I’m not sure the logic of ‘well, players are already flying on commercial flights, so it’s OK to do’ carries a lot of weight with me,” Dames said. “But I do understand the reality of the situation we’re in, and what teams can and cannot afford to do is real.”

Dames went on to say across the league no one is being forced to play in the four-game Fall Series. As someone who falls into the high-risk category, Dames, who has asthma, feels the organization would support him if he chose to opt out of traveling. But that’s not something he’s considering.

“As a coach, even if one of your players is going, you feel obligated to go,” Dames said.

The 2020 NWSL season has provided teams with very little in the way of routine.

As quickly as the season began, NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird postponed it due to the pandemic. The Challenge Cup, which for the Red Stars consisted of seven games in 30 days, was a success but was followed by another break in the season.

The Red Stars wrapped up their third preseason of the year this week. As they did, Dames considered how the inconsistent schedule has affected his team physically, mentally and tactically.

The starting and stopping in a short time-span is worse than an 8-to-10 month season, and mentally, the uncertainty plays a huge role in players’ training, Dames said. Tactically speaking, there are players the Red Stars might not have sent out on loan if Dames knew a fall schedule was going to happen.

After the Challenge Cup in Utah, players needed a break, mentally more than physically. And now, they have had two weeks to return to game form instead of a standard two or three months.

“It’s difficult because the starting and stopping is how injuries happen,” Kealia Watt said. “Our bodies are just used to playing.”

Dames said his team is approaching the Fall Series with the same game plan they had in Utah. The Red Stars are less concerned with results and more concerned with evaluating players.

The entire team has opted to play in the Fall Series except for defender, Julie Ertz.

Several Red Stars are out on loan, including Yuki Nagasato. The team announced Wednesday that she will make history as the first woman to play professionally for Hayabusa Eleven, an amateur men’s club, as part of the Kanagawa Prefecture League in Japan.

All loans end prior to the 2021 NWSL season, which Dames is hopeful will provide more consistency next year.

“I would expect that the season calendar will change next season,” Dames said. “Through March, April and May, I don’t know where we’ll be as a country or as a state. I would like to think at the absolute latest, summer and then into fall; we’d be back to a full go.”

In the meantime, the Red Stars are continuing to make the most of another opportunity to play.

The team has established its own set of general guidelines to keep everyone safe that players say was based on the honor system rather than hard-and-fast rules. The unspoken rule is not to do anything that can’t be explained to the team.

Given the challenges this season has presented to athletes in the NWSL, it’s hard not to consider why they all haven’t opted out of this four-game series.

“For me, I feel a duty to be here with my team,” Watt said.