The mental toll of life in the NWSL Challenge Cup bubble

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McCall Zerboni made four consecutive trips to the College Cup with UCLA and all four times saw other teams celebrate titles. She lost a championship game in one professional league, finally won the title a few years later, then shortly after saw the league fold. She waited longer than anyone ever has to debut for the U.S. women's national team, then saw her 2019 World Cup aspirations derailed by an injury. She won an NWSL title with Western New York Flash, then had to follow the franchise south to be part of two more as North Carolina Courage.

So the current Sky Blue FC midfielder is reasonably qualified to opine on the ups and downs of a soccer existence. She has lived the precedent. All of it.

Even for her, the NWSL Challenge Cup is something new.

"I've been so proud to be a part of this league and everything that's going on and the way all the staff members and the players are handing all of this because y'all will never really know," Zerboni said of the ongoing tournament even before her team advanced to the semifinals. "You're not inside this bubble with us. And what you imagine is probably true plus more."

The NWSL is going to have a different kind of champion this year, no matter what happens in the semifinals pitting Sky Blue against Portland Thorns FC and Houston against Chicago Red Stars. That doesn't mean the team won't be a worthy champion.

The prize available this summer will be a lesser physical accomplishment than those titles earned in the league's first seven seasons. That's unavoidable. A one-month tournament, made necessary by the coronavirus pandemic that scuttled the regular schedule, is not a seven-month season. As a quarterfinal round that produced one goal and three penalty shootouts reminded us, there is a degree of randomness about what happens on the field in a tournament setting.

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But making it to the end of this tournament will be a mental accomplishment unlike any other.

"It's constantly suppressing fear and anxiety," Zerboni said of life in the bubble. "There's not a lot of space to sort of escape. You know exactly what's going on. So it just takes a mental strength where you just can't let any negativity seep in. It can be a very slippery slope and you start going down a rabbit hole of everything that is going on."

Teams in MLS, the NBA, NHL and WNBA are either gearing up for or are in the early stages of seasons now confined to single-site, restricted-access locations, i.e. bubbles. Those leagues are where the NWSL was a month ago when it became the first professional league in this country to return. And they would be wise to pay attention to what has transpired in Utah. For if goals have been hard to come by in a low-scoring tournament, consider it at least symbolic of the reality that every team is playing two opponents. One on the field. The other waiting off the field.

"Listen, nobody is comfortable in the bubble," Red Stars coach Rory Dames said before his own team advanced to the semifinals. "I understand people keep asking about it. All I keep telling them is you can't understand it if you're not here, if you're not actually here living in it. 'Hang out in a hotel for three to four weeks' doesn't sound like a bad thing unless you actually can't leave the hotel and that's all you can do for those three or four weeks."

Even at just a month long, the NWSL Challenge Cup is no walk in the park physically. Players were early in preseason when the pandemic shut down sports this spring. Kept out of team facilities for months and permitted to train in anything resembling full team settings for only a matter of days before departing for Utah, they faced a condensed schedule, at altitude, often in blistering heat and on artificial turf (the semifinals and finals will be played on grass at Rio Tinto Stadium).

"I'm not going to lie, my body is hurting," 30-year-old Washington Spirit defender Tori Huster said days ago. "There are just different things with this tournament format that a player at my age has to be aware of and on top of recovery. I think our club and the league has done its best to provide those certain modalities or treatments that every player needs. But high performance wise, I'm not sure I am at the top of my game right now given the pandemic and the lead-up to the tournament. But we are doing our best with it."

That was before she played 90 more minutes Saturday, a day when temperatures reached the mid-90s. Even with hydration breaks, no extra time and five substitutions, as has been standard across much of the globe since soccer returned, that's a grind. Physical issues are plenty to derail teams. Huster's Spirit are among the best examples -- Rose Lavelle limited to 30 minutes in the quarterfinal and Andi Sullivan and Jordan DiBiasi missing entirely because of injury.

But players and coaches are used to physical grinds. Chicago's already daunting challenge facing North Carolina in last season's championship game grew even more impossible when defender Tierna Davidson was injured in training leading up to the game. That happens. No one really expects to escape unscathed when they step on the field.

Not being able to escape when you leave the field is something new for those who are confined for a month to hotels and apartments, training grounds and stadiums. And, well, not much else.

"I underestimated how much the mental load would really take on us, the staff, the players, everybody," Houston coach James Clarkson acknowledged. "My family, I miss them dearly. It's tough. And when you go through all the emotions of what we're going through with the game, it is incredibly hard. Getting a balance is vitally important. Unfortunately we can't go anywhere to break the monotony."

Before the term became synonymous with sports in a pandemic, few groups talked more about bubbles than the U.S. women's national team. It was their escape from the attention and hype surrounding major tournaments. It was a way to shut out the noise. But it was metaphorical. Being in the bubble last summer didn't stop a group of players from relaxing at a sidewalk cafe along one of the main pedestrian thoroughfares in Reims, France, ahead of the Women's World Cup opener against Thailand.

If still marginally metaphorical, the bubble now is almost real enough to reach out and touch.

"Usually in these tournaments you hit a point where you're like 'Oh my God, I need to get out.'" Portland's Lindsey Horan explained last week. "At the World Cup you can leave the hotel and go do stuff, get coffee. You obviously can't here. You've got to find different ways."

Horan, who noted she was enjoying the tournament, turned to teqball. Clarkson said he tried meditation and walking. Still, the confines of the hotel and its parking lot extend only so far.

Some challenges are less serious than others, occasionally even bordering on humorous. A former NWSL player who is now executive director of the union representing its players, Yael Averbuch noted that the daily location and accessibility of a coffee truck hired by tournament organizers is among the most frequent questions reaching her and co-executive director Brooke Elby -- who has been on the ground in Utah. Every long day needs a latte.

"When you're living somewhere and you're kind of isolated there, you need to have those things answered," Averbuch said. "I think the type of questions we've been dealing with are really the right type of questions -- the logistics of all the amenities and how you're going to live your life. Those are the questions we hoped to be answering, and not questions about the actual medical protocols and people being worried about their health and safety."

In that sense, it is the best-case scenario. But the mental toll is also real.

So much focus before the tournament centered on matters of physical health related to the virus, all the more after Orlando Pride withdrew because of positive tests. But with no further positive tests and protocols apparently doing their job, mental health increasingly becomes an equal concern. That is especially true in light of the protests and fraught conversations that spread across the country in the wake of George Floyd's death in police custody -- a movement for social justice that continues to encompass the league and its players.

A national health emergency, a social reckoning and a job that is, at the best of times, intensely competitive. It is a lot to process.

After leaving a preliminary-round game in the first half, OL Reign's Bethany Balcer posted a message on Twitter that she had suffered from a panic attack. While she said she suffered through a similar incident last year, she noted that it is "tough to stay mentally sharp and healthy in an environment like this one" and she had hit an "emotional wall."

Averbuch said the NWSLPA advised players even before the tournament was finalized of the mental health options available under their insurance through the league. The union also agreed to cover the costs of an outside mental health professional players could contact.

"Obviously there's a fine line -- we want to support but we're not going to push anything on people," Averbuch said. "But there are situations where players are struggling. I think we have done the best we can to support people, but it is certainly a very difficult situation."

She noted that there was some conversation about whether any of the rules and restrictions in place could be relaxed as half of the teams departed after the quarterfinals. But the answer, ultimately, was no, not without potentially squandering the effort already made.

The opponent that made all of this necessary unfortunately remains. So life in the bubble continues for another week.

"This is a new territory for everybody," Zerboni said. "Nobody has ever done this before ... this is all new ground. This is something that will be an amazing story, something very amazing to be written about. I was never going to turn down this opportunity, because it's once in a lifetime. It's a way that we can learn, that we can grow as humans, about ourselves, about the sport.

"It's a beautiful opportunity if you look at it that way."

It's also an opportunity to win a championship quite unlike any other.