In SheBelieves Cup, U.S. Soccer faced pandemic scheduling challenges

The competition was less than five weeks away. Contracts had been signed and national TV slots secured. Health and safety were paramount, but King and the USSF needed to know soon whether the Nadeshiko, as the renowned Japanese team is called, would make it.

“Immediately you start to think, ‘We need to take a little deeper dive’ ” in case a replacement was necessary, King said. “The clock is ticking.”

Amid the global crisis, he and the federation staff needed to be nimble. Japan did end up bowing out, prompting King to turn to a list of worldwide counterparts assembled over more than 26 years at the Chicago-based governing body.

Within two weeks, Argentina had agreed to join Canada, Brazil and the world champion Americans in the week-long tournament, which is scheduled to kick off Thursday at Exploria Stadium with the first of three doubleheaders. The United States, unbeaten in 34 straight over more than two years, will open against archrival Canada at 7 p.m.

The scramble for a replacement underscored the challenges of scheduling international soccer matches when borders have been tightened, visa processing has slowed and medical factors threaten to upend long-set plans.

“It is day-to-day — wake up and wait to see what hits you,” said Amy Hopfinger, who, as the USSF’s director of events, oversees operations and planning of men’s and women’s national team matches.

The pandemic sidelined the U.S. women’s team for more than eight months and the men for more than nine. The Olympics were postponed, and 2022 World Cup men’s qualifying was delayed a year. Numerous friendlies were scrapped.

Players returned to action with their clubs well before they were able to resume their national team careers, which, for the women, cast uncertainty about the start of preparations for the rescheduled Olympics this summer.

“We’ve realized we just need to be adaptable and know that, because the present and future are so uncertain, we have to prepare like we are playing in a really important game in the next week, two weeks, month, whatever it is,” forward Alex Morgan said.

International soccer returned in earnest this past fall, and although the pandemic was raging in the United States, the USSF was well into outlining plans for its own safe return.

“If we didn’t feel it provided a level of protection for all of our players and staff, we just wouldn’t put on events,” said King, the federation’s managing director of administration. “The technical, commercial, financial all have to take a back seat.”

The USSF did not feel ready to implement protocols until the fall. Women’s friendlies against Brazil and Australia, postponed in April and tentatively planned for September and October respectively, did not come to fruition.

The U.S. men returned in November with friendlies at Wales — a game that had been postponed in March — and against Panama in Austria. (The Panamanians were already there for another game.) For safety and logistical purposes, most U.S. call-ups came from European clubs.

A month later, a domestic-based squad welcomed El Salvador for a friendly in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

The women held a camp in October in greater Denver and resumed play in late November in the Netherlands, a rematch of the 2019 World Cup final.

In all cases, there were no major complications.

The men were planning to play Serbia in Orlando, the end to the annual January camp featuring mostly MLS players. Falling outside a FIFA window, when clubs are obligated to release players, Serbia would field a largely domestic-based lineup, too.

King had spoken with his Serbian counterpart for more than six months, and although no official announcement had been made, everything seemed on track.

But with cases rising and U.S. consulates worldwide, including the one in Belgrade, operating at reduced capacity, the Serbian team would not be able to complete the visa process in time.

King remembered saying to himself, “Wow, we have a game two weeks from tomorrow and don’t have an opponent.”

The USSF was contractually obligated to fill a national TV slot. And Coach Gregg Berhalter wanted a match for his young squad.

At that point, though, the USSF was not going to land another European side. The only chance, King said, was securing a team from the Concacaf region that was keen for a tuneup before it started World Cup qualifying in March.

“So then it was a complete blanketing of all Caribbean and Central American teams that conceivably could be available and could pull it off,” King said.

Trinidad and Tobago was game. Within 48 hours, the sides struck a deal. Because many T&T players and staff had multi-entry U.S. visas, travel preparations went smoothly.

The match wasn’t great. Facing a team that had been dormant since 2019 and missing many players, the Americans rolled to a 7-0 victory. It wasn’t the test they would’ve received from Serbia, but at least they got to play.

For the SheBelieves Cup, the USSF created a bubble environment about 25 miles outside Orlando. (Typically, matches take place in three cities. “A traveling circus,” Hopfinger said.)

All four teams, as well as match officials and tournament staff, are staying in the same hotel. (Typically, they are housed separately.) The complex includes training fields.

As with all matches arranged by the USSF, two compliance officers will ensure participants are following health and safety protocols. Everyone will be tested regularly.

The tournament falls in an official match window, but during the pandemic, FIFA is allowing clubs to decline call-ups if the players face a quarantine longer than five days upon return from international duty; France’s quarantine is seven days.

Paris Saint-Germain did not release American Alana Cook, Canadians Jordyn Huitema and Ashley Lawrence, and Brazilians Formiga and Luana. Olympique Lyonnais rejected Canada’s request for Kadeisha Buchanan, but did allow Catarina Macario to join the U.S. squad.

King and Hopfinger will not exhale until all coronavirus testing returns negative and the opening whistle sounds.

“You have to prepare like [matches] going to happen, knowing that it could be shut down [on] a moment’s notice,” said Morgan, who missed the Colombia matches while recovering from covid-19. “I never would have imagined you would be told you’re not playing a game the next day and be like, ‘Okay.’

“Hopefully, we’ll get back to some sort of normal sense and some sort of consistency, but there is still a foreseeable future of uncertainty in sports.”

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