NWSL to play limited fall season in home markets

Sam Mewis full of praise for NWSL's Challenge Cup success (1:22)

USWNT's Sam Mewis says she was lucky to be playing the NWSL Challenge Cup when many sports were not running. (1:22)

The first professional sports league to return to play in a bubble this summer, the National Women's Soccer League, will soon join the list of leagues playing games in home markets.

NWSL teams will play a limited fall schedule beginning Sept. 5, the league announced Tuesday.

The league did not reveal the exact schedule or format in Tuesday's announcement but said there will be a total of 18 games over seven weeks. Teams will be split into three pods of three teams each, playing games only against the other teams in its pod.

The pods are organized on roughly geographic criteria to minimize travel. One pod will feature Seattle-area OL Reign, Portland Thorns FC and Utah Royals FC. Another will feature Chicago Red Stars, New Jersey-based Sky Blue FC and Washington Spirit. The third pod will feature Houston Dash, North Carolina Courage and Orlando Pride.

There was no indication of any championship round beyond the games in the pods.

The league initially returned to play in the NWSL Challenge Cup on June 27, an eight team tournament staged entirely across two sites in the Salt Lake City area. Players and staff remained inside a self-contained bubble consisting of the playing facilities and housing. The tournament was originally designed for all nine of the league's teams, but the Pride withdrew shortly before traveling to Utah because of positive coronavirus tests within the team and staff.

The Dash beat the Red Stars, 2-0, in the championship game on July 26. The league announced there were no positive tests within the bubble throughout the duration of the event.

"Building on the success of this summer's Challenge Cup, I am so excited to smartly and safely take this next step on the NWSL's journey," NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird said in a statement. "The women of the NWSL want to compete and we've certainly heard from our fans all over the world looking for more action this year."

The league also released updated medical protocols. Players and staff are required to wear masks at all times outside of homes, except when exercising, training, eating or playing. The mandate includes locker rooms. The protocols also details cleaning and sanitizing requirements for team facilities, as well as buses, airplanes and hotel rooms for travel.

Players and staff "should generally self-quarantine, except to attend team activities and to perform essential functions." Additionally, players and staff are prohibited from physical contact with members of other teams, outside of games.

Protocols for positive tests and contact tracing remain similar to those for the Challenge Cup, with detailed guidelines on isolation and testing procedures for both symptomatic and asymptomatic positive tests, as well as low and high-risk contacts.

While the NWSL will return to the field for the limited schedules, many players have already either signed or been loaned to teams abroad that will play full league schedules.

U.S. national team stars Rose Lavelle and Sam Mewis left Washington and North Carolina, respectively, to sign with Manchester City. Orlando loaned their U.S. teammate Emily Sonnett to Sweden's Kopparbergs/Goteborg FC. Among those also headed to Sweden are Chicago's Rachel Hill, North Carolina's Hailie Mace and OL Reign's Lauren Barnes. OL Reign also loaned five-team all-league midfielder Jess Fishlock to Reading FC in England.