Reflections on the NWSL Challenge Cup and beyond | A journal from Thorns defender Emily Menges

Thorns travel to Utah, 9.10.20

Perhaps the most cliche phrase of the last six months has been: What a weird time to be alive. Professional sports, although one of the first industries to figure out alternative methods of existence during COVID, were not exempt from that phrase.

Something I think it is important to explain right from the start is that our league, the NWSL, is very much a collective effort, and our team a family within that collective. This united effort is what made the Challenge Cup possible. The goal was not to pressure anyone to rashly hop on board, it was about creating a quasi-season that worked for every single person involved, and I think that’s what we accomplished.

Chapter 1: What’s happening? Who knows.

The month of June was riddled with rumors. You probably saw snippets on Twitter, talk about bubbles and an abbreviated season. The rumors were not just because the players were told to keep details surrounding the Challenge Cup confidential, but even if someone wanted to spill the beans, the beans changed on a minute to minute basis. Calls were constant: league wide question and answer sessions with Lisa Baird and the medical task force; calls with the Executive board of the players association gauging player safety, perception and comfort; Thorns team calls with staff and doctors to communicate updates and protocol; players only calls to vent and express excitement, concern and misgivings; calls with my mom to gain perspective and reassurance. Some players were down to participate from the start, others were out immediately, others (including myself) flipped back and forth between thinking I wanted to play soccer to, in the next moment, thinking this was highly irresponsible in the midst of a world-wide pandemic. No one’s feelings were dismissed and no one's choices judged. I include all this to give credit to everyone. No one took the process lightly.

June was not smooth, but June was not smooth for a single person in the entire world.

I had one specific conversation that will stick with me. The world is sacrificing, this person said, and you all are sacrificing too. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Women’s soccer players are well accustomed to sacrifice under normal circumstances. And now you are in a unique situation to create something incredible that has never been done before. Some haters will call you guinea pigs, others will call you trail blazers.

Good riddance to June, in came July.

Chapter 2: Lord of the Flies: Embassy Suites Salt Lake City Edition

Admittedly, to compare our month of July to Lord of the Flies is a bit dramatic, but it was kind of like that at times. Just kidding. Kind of. Just keep reading.

It started with a private jet and only got weirder from there.

Reflections on the NWSL Challenge Cup and beyond | A journal from Thorns defender Emily Menges -

Photo: Emily Menges

I sent a picture of the private jet to my family and that night from room 711 in the Embassy Suites, the room that would be my home for the next 5 weeks, we got on a family Zoom. “So, what exactly are you guys doing?” My brother asked. Yea, great question.

Rule number one, no leaving the bubble. The bubble being the entire Embassy Suites property. No we didn’t have a Disney complex, but here is what we did have. Available areas to enjoy included: The entire 7th floor – the Thorns floor, the confined outdoor patio, the meeting room deemed “player lounge”, the parking lot, the eating area (but only during our time slot), the pool between 3:30 and 4:30 daily, a random foosball table in the lobby.

I am a person of simple pleasures, yet routine. I was dreading the lack of personal space. I hated that my windows didn’t open. I was not excited about the prospect of being told when to eat my meals. For the first few days we were running off excitement waiting for the moment our adrenalin would wear off and we’d sink into a subpar version of our lives…then something crazy happened. Everything was fine. I was so limited in space and routine, that it boiled down my simple pleasures to an even simpler level. There was one place to sit outside, so I sat there. I brought a couple books, so I read them. Wifi barely worked, so we played cards. There was one meal, so I ate it (doused in ranch dressing). The elevator broke, so we stayed wherever we were stranded (no, we didn’t take the stairs). The air conditioning broke, so we hung out in the hall and chatted as the maintenance man fixed each unit one by one. Our lives were stripped of decision, stress and distraction and instead we lived this little peaceful life with nothing but soccer practice and free time to fill our days. It’s how I imagine living on a compound in a cult is like.

Reflections on the NWSL Challenge Cup and beyond | A journal from Thorns defender Emily Menges -

Photo: Emily Menges

Women’s soccer players are adaptable by nature and we all stumbled into this thoughtless routine.

Only one team was allowed in the confined outdoor area at a time, so those who liked to read in the sun booked outdoor time by the half hour time slots (if available) before or after training.

Even though Starbucks was within spitting distance of the hotel, they were outside the bubble. Ordering on your own was triple the price because of delivery fees, so those who needed Starbucks came together and sent out mass coffee orders.

There was a puzzle crew who worked their way through every puzzle donated to the player lounge, a sunset crew who gathered by the window outside the elevator on the 7th floor to watch the sun set each night, an ice cream social crew who met around 6:30pm for some ice cream, a tie-dye night, a cards group, we were all covered in Riveter donated temporary tattoos, someone even brought clown balloons and a pump to teach the team balloon animals. It was surprising to realize that we were having a lot of fun.

Reflections on the NWSL Challenge Cup and beyond | A journal from Thorns defender Emily Menges -

Photo: Emily Menges

Enter Lord of the Flies reference. Slowly but surely the rumors started up again. A team had gone through a drive-thru? Was that true? Drive-thrus aren’t in the bubble! A team had taken the scenic way home from practice? Not allowed! The problem with having little to worry about is that you start creating ridiculous things to worry about. We became our own rule enforcers. It is amusing to look back now and remember what worked us up so much in the moment. A team went through a drive-thru? How dare they. Bubble-world problems.

However, it didn’t take us long to find a more productive use of our misguided outrage and energy. The Black Lives Matter protests were gaining national attention in Portland and only building momentum. We had already begun addressing certain racial issues as a team, committing ourselves to education and ongoing conversations. And while we had started that before we left, what we had all of a sudden in Utah was a stage. We were going to be the first sport back on television in the entire country, men and women.

We had a loud voice.

While we admitted to missing our chance to take a hard stance on this topic in the past, we seized our chance this time around.

The conversations started up again. As a small league with limited staff to handle all the details the bubble required, the players became the catalysts for brainstorming and organizing. The league worked with the players association. Every team worked together and with opposing teams to unify our message and stance. We pushed for the national anthem to be played as normal. We all got shirts. Each team had hard conversations. We came together once again and made a big statement.

Reflections on the NWSL Challenge Cup and beyond | A journal from Thorns defender Emily Menges -

Photo: Emily Menges

There are a few things we may take away from our time in the bubble. Each person will think different things, but I will always think first of being part of something bigger than myself. The Challenge Cup was unique and huge for women's soccer in the United States. The Black Lives Matter movement is and will continue to be bigger than all sports. The ability of our league and player group to come together and create something incredible and with as big of an impact as we had is what I’ll carry with me.

Chapter 3: Now what? Onward and upward via the Fall Series!

It has its faults and no one is trying to pretend it doesn’t, but here are the goals.

First of all, soccer has its role. We provide entertainment and connection to our community. We inspire passion from all ages and demographics. We continue to grow as players and together as a team. We are training to win. We have unfinished business. We know we have strides to make during these next four games and to carry that momentum into our 2021 season. However, as a team we have committed ourselves to causes greater than soccer and we plan to continue that mission into the fall series and beyond. Recently our whole team registered to vote. We hope you’ll do the same. We voted on issues we feel passionately about and strive to educate ourselves and inspire education in others (stay tuned on those issues – check Instagram in the next few days). Even the league seems to be following our footsteps as the winner of each pod will receive $25,000 to donate to a mission or small business that they believe in (second and third place to receive $15,000 and $10,000 respectively). Very cool.

Since leaving Utah, I’ve been asked a lot about my thoughts on the tournament and I still can’t really believe we pulled it off. A friend asked me the other day if it was considered a success. Would I have loved to win? Do I wish we scored more goals and conceded fewer? Of course. But we came together when the odds were against us, we stood up for what we believe in and we are continuing that work in our individual markets. So a success? From me – a resounding yes.