Herriman • Two North Carolina Courage players found themselves in a 2-on-1 with a Portland Thorns defender. But as they got closer to the goal, the palpable feeling of anticipation was mostly absent.
A Courage goal appeared imminent, but there was no noise from the stands of fans gasping, “oooohing” or cheering. The moment came and went, without the stadium adrenaline that usually accompanies it.
The National Women’s Soccer League kicked off its season Saturday with the Challenge Cup, becoming the first professional sports league in the North America to return to play after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down leagues across the country.
The tournament lasts a month and will be held at two locations in the Salt Lake Area — Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman and Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy. No spectators are allowed for the duration of the tournament.
So throughout the opening game between the Courage and Thorns, which ended in a 2-1 win for North Carolina, the atmosphere was not quite commensurate with what one would normally expect from a professional sporting match. The national CBS television broadcast employed artificial crowd noise, which sounded a bit like static and wasn’t supported by fans online.
But at the stadium, it was the players and coaches acting as the crowd. Thorns coach Mark Parsons and Courage coach Paul Riley could be heard shouting instructions and complaining to referees. Courage players periodically shouted “Let’s go blue” from the bench, and the 11 players on the field could be heard communicating with each other.
“It was actually still really intense,” Courage defender Samantha Mewis said. “We heard the benches a lot, which is almost more intense because you know the other team’s cheering if they have some momentum, if our team’s cheering we have some momentum. So the atmosphere was definitely really intense and exciting.”
The stands weren’t completely empty. There was a limited number of media on hand to cover the game, and several team and league officials took in the game. Those included Utah Royals FC coach Craig Harrington, Royals general manager Stephanie Lee, Real Salt Lake and Royals owner Dell Loy Hansen, and NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird.
Courage coach Paul Riley said he didn’t even notice that weren’t fans in the stands. He also said he told his team that Saturday’s game was “much bigger than just us against Portland.”
“It’s about everything,” Riley said. “It’s about the sports getting back and about all the stuff in our society that’s going on. I think it’s a big moment for injustice and that because I know our players really, truly believe — as we all do — that something needs to change.”
Before the game, most of the players stood in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
As the national anthem was delivered by a lone saxophone player, every one of the 11 starters for each team took a knee while wearing BLM T-shirts, which were worn by every player during warmups.
Members of the Courage coaching staff and one player on the bench remained standing during the anthem.
A moment of silence was observed moments before kickoff. Every player, coach and referee knelt during that time.
“I think that we want to keep this momentum and keep the attention on the Black Lives Matter movement throughout this tournament,” Mewis said.