The competition was less than five weeks away. Contracts were signed and national TV slots secured. Health and safety came first, but King and the USSF soon had to know if the Nadeshiko, as the renowned Japanese team is called, would make it.
“Immediately you start to think, ‘We have to go a little deeper,'” if a replacement was necessary, King said. “The clock is ticking.”
In the midst of the global crisis, he and the association’s employees had to be nimble. Finally, Japan bowed and prompted King to turn to a list of global colleagues who served on the Chicago-based governing body for more than 26 years.
Within two weeks, Argentina had agreed to join Canada, Brazil and the American world champions in the week-long tournament, which is due to begin Thursday at Exploria Stadium with the first of three double heads. The United States, unbeaten in 34 games for more than two years, will face arch-rivals Canada at 7 p.m.
Finding a replacement underscored the challenges of planning international football matches when borders tightened, visa processing slowed, and medical factors threatened to alter long-term plans.
“It’s day after day – wake up and wait to see what hits you,” said Amy Hopfinger, who, as the USSF’s events director, oversees the operation and planning of the men’s and women’s national team games.
The pandemic incapacitated the U.S. women’s team for more than eight months and the men for more than nine months. The Olympic Games have been postponed and the men’s qualification for the 2022 World Cup has been postponed by one year. Numerous friendlies have been scrapped.
The players returned to action with their clubs long before they were able to resume their careers on the national team, which left the women with uncertainty about how to begin preparations for the planned Olympics this summer.
“We realized that we just need to be adaptable and know that we need to prepare to play in a really important game, whatever it is, in the next week, two weeks, a month, whatever it is, because present and Future are so uncertain, “said striker Alex Morgan.
International football made a serious return last fall, and although the pandemic raged across the United States, the USSF was good at sketching plans for a safe return of its own.
“If we didn’t think this would protect all of our players and staff, we simply wouldn’t be holding events,” said King, the association’s administrative director. “The technical, commercial and financial aspects must all take a back seat.”
The USSF did not feel ready to implement protocols until the fall. Women’s friendships against Brazil and Australia, which were postponed in April and provisionally planned for September and October respectively, were not realized.
The US men returned in November with friendly matches in Wales – a game postponed in March – and against Panama, Austria. (The Panamanians were already there for another game.) For security and logistical reasons, most US missions came from European clubs.
A month later, a domestic squad greeted El Salvador for a friendly in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
The women hosted camp in the Denver area in October and resumed the game in the Netherlands in late November, a rematch of the 2019 World Cup final.
In all cases there were no major complications.
The men planned to play Serbia in Orlando, the end of the annual January camp with mostly MLS players. If Serbia falls outside of a FIFA window and players are required to release players, there would also be a largely domestic line-up.
King had spoken with his Serbian counterpart for more than six months, and although there was no official announcement, everything seemed to be on the right track.
However, with cases rising and US consulates around the world, including the one in Belgrade, operating at reduced capacity, the Serbian team may not complete the visa process on time.
King remembered saying to himself, “Wow, we have a game two weeks before tomorrow and no opponent.”
The USSF was contractually obliged to occupy a national TV slot. And coach Gregg Berhalter wanted a match for his young squad.
At this point, however, the USSF would not land any other European side. The only chance, King said, was to attract a team from the Concacaf region that were looking to improve before World Cup qualifiers began in March.
“So it was full coverage of all the Caribbean and Central American teams that could possibly be available and make it,” King said.
Trinidad and Tobago was game. The sites hit a deal within 48 hours. With many T&T players and staff on US multiple-entry visas, travel arrangements went smoothly.
The match wasn’t that great. Against a team that had been inactive since 2019 and missed many players, the Americans won 7-0. It wasn’t the test they would have received from Serbia, but at least they had to play.
For the SheBelieves Cup, the USSF created a bubble environment about 25 miles outside of Orlando. (Games usually take place in three cities. “A traveling circus,” said Hopfinger.)
All four teams as well as the match officers and tournament staff stay in the same hotel. (Usually they are housed separately.) The complex includes training fields.
As with all games organized by the USSF, two compliance officers ensure that participants adhere to health and safety protocols. Everyone is tested regularly.
The tournament falls within an official game window, but during the pandemic, FIFA allows clubs to refuse convictions if players are quarantined for more than five days after returning from international service. France’s quarantine is seven days.
Paris Saint-Germain has not released American Alana Cook, Canadians Jordyn Huitema and Ashley Lawrence, and Brazilians Formiga and Luana. Olympique Lyonnais denied Canada’s application for Kadeisha Buchanan, but allowed Catarina Macario to join the US squad.
King and Hopfinger only exhale when all coronavirus tests are negative and the opening whistle sounds.
“You have to like to prepare [matches are] will happen knowing it might shut down [on] A moment later, “said Morgan, who missed the Colombia Games while recovering from Covid-19. “I never thought you’d be told that you wouldn’t play a game the next day and that you’d say, ‘Okay. ‘
“Hopefully we will get back to a normal sense of purpose and some sort of persistence, but there is still a foreseeable future of insecurity in sport.”