Megan Rapinoe’s coach says star will skip NWSL relaunch

Megan Rapinoe, the biggest star in women’s soccer, will not be on the field when the National Women’s Soccer League becomes one of the first American sports leagues to resume competition later this month, her coach said.

Rapinoe’s apparent decision to sit out a month-long tournament in Utah — neither Rapinoe; her agent; or her team, OL Reign; would confirm she had made a binding decision not to play — was revealed by her new coach, Farid Benstiti, in an interview with French newspaper Le Progrès.

“I understand her motivations, but I am disappointed and frustrated that she will not be with us to compete in this tournament,” Benstiti told Le Progrès. “Megan is important to the group, and we could have achieved something big if she had joined the rest of the group. She will be missed by the team and also by women’s football.”

The Utah tournament, the NWSL Challenge Cup, is a new competition arranged by the league as a way to ensure it will play something resembling a season this year amid the coronavirus pandemic.

To pull off the event, the league will gather its nine teams and place them in semiquarantine in Utah while they play a series of matches and then a brief knockout tournament. For the duration of the competition, the NWSL will house the players and staff members and subject them to repeated testing for the virus, which has infected more than 1.8 million Americans and killed more than 108,000 of them.

Before announcing the event, the league held discussions with its players to try to assuage concerns about everything from health and testing protocols to isolation from their families and partners to the risks of injury from a compressed schedule in which most games will be played on artificial turf.

In unveiling plans for the competition after weeks of quiet negotiations, the league and the players’ union went out of their way to say that every player had the right to choose whether to take part and that there would be no consequences if they decided not to do so. Either way, the league said, all players’ salaries and benefits would be guaranteed through 2020.

Members of the U.S. national team, who are the league’s biggest stars and paid their guaranteed NWSL and national team salaries through contracts with the U.S. Soccer Federation, have remained mixed among yes, no and maybe responses, according to several people who have knowledge of the group’s plans. Few players, including Rapinoe, have publicly spoken about their intentions.

Rapinoe’s agent, Dan Levy, did not respond to messages seeking comment on her status. Neither did a spokeswoman for her team, OL Reign. The NWSL declined to comment on the French news report or Benstiti’s comments about Rapinoe’s decision.

That Rapinoe, 34, might elect to sit out the tournament would not necessarily come as a surprise.

The teams will play on artificial turf until the semifinal and final rounds of the NWSL tournament. The prevalence of artificial playing surfaces has been a sore issue in women’s soccer for years, to the point that dozens of the world’s top players sued FIFA, the sport’s governing body, in an effort to have it removed before the 2015 Women’s World Cup in Canada. Months after the United States won that tournament, Rapinoe tore the ACL in her right knee while training on a turf field before one of the national team’s victory tour games. She also tore the meniscus in her left knee in 2017.

Concerns about injuries this summer have been on many athletes’ minds ahead of the Utah event because there will be an abbreviated training period for the players, many of whom have not been able to work out normally while adhering to stay-at-home orders.

And while some players might feel pressured to participate to remain in the good graces of their teams, Rapinoe, as one of the most popular and most marketable stars in the game, is presumably not at risk of losing her place in the pecking order at OL Reign.

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Still, the NWSL would no doubt miss the presence of Rapinoe and any of the other top American women who are considering sitting out. Rapinoe was named the tournament’s top player after leading the United States to the title at the 2019 Women’s World Cup, where she elevated her profile as a candid, eloquent and often very humorous speaker on a range of social issues.

Rapinoe will not be completely out of the spotlight this summer, though. On June 21, she will host ESPN’s annual ESPY Awards — which will be held virtually — with her girlfriend, WNBA star Sue Bird, and NFL quarterback Russell Wilson.

TORONTO STAR