24 June 2020

Houston Dash’s Katie Naughton on the thrill of returning to NWSL action, the ‘shock’ of Orlando Pride’s withdrawal and the threat that remains from Covid-19

Houston Dash defender Katie Naughton has said Orlando Pride’s withdrawal from the National Women’s Soccer League’s Challenge Cup was a ‘shock’ and opened her eyes to the ‘real dangers’ posed by Covid-19.

Pride were forced to pull out of the upcoming one-month long tournament this week after it was revealed six players had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Naughton told NewsChain in an exclusive interview: "I mean initially I was sad that they had to make that decision, but I understand they needed to do so for the safety and health of the players moving forward with the tournament.

"It wasn't something we wanted to happen and we feel for the girls on the team and the staff. So we just hope that they’re getting the proper care they need during this difficult time for them.

"[Their withdrawal] doesn’t make me more nervous about the tournament going ahead. I just think it opened my eyes to the real possibility of the dangers of Covid because none of us had been affected up until that point.

“So hearing that players in the league did test positive was a shock for some of us and I think now we're really buckling down and taking things even more seriously than we were before.”

Despite Pride’s withdrawal, Naughton has said she is excited to get on the field with her new club. 

She joined Dash from Chicago Red Stars at the start of the year in a trade deal with Kealia Watt which saw her move the other way.

Naughton has said the club have been ‘overwhelmingly welcoming’ and the entire roster is excited that the NWSL is the first league back in North America.

"I think it shows we are gaining more traction and people really do want to see us succeed and perform," the 26 year-old added.

“I think people are really hungry for sports right now, so it's good to see that we're the first ones back, even though a lot of news outlets haven’t really broadcast that! I think us within the league are really excited and know this is a step in the right direction.

“We know the league and our commissioner have our best interests in mind regarding our health and safety as we wouldn’t be doing this if that wasn’t the case. So we're confident moving forward with the tournament at this time and being the first back to really make a mark.”

Naughton is excited to take the field with Dash for the first time (Zuma Press/PA Images)

Naughton’s dig at some media is not without foundation.

Despite the NWSL being the first league to return, many outlets have been heralding the return of  the men’s Major League Soccer on July 8 as the key date.

“It’s a little disappointing,” says Naughton, "because we are the first league back and to not get that acknowledgement is a little disheartening, but I think putting that aside, this is our job.

"This is something we have worked hard for over the past few months and it is reward enough to know we’re going to go and compete and perform our jobs to the best of our ability regardless of whether people report on it or not.

“So really, at the end of the day, it's up to us to be the ones to make people want to watch us play.”

The dearth of live sport has led to high anticipation of interest in the tournament and Naughton is excited to see if the ratings spike.

She said: "I really think it will [increase viewership] because people want to watch sports. The Premier League and the Bundesliga are the few that are back up and running but that’s not domestic here in the US.

“So being the first domestic league back will definitely bump our viewership a bit as people want to watch sports. It is integral to the American culture so I think that will be exciting for the league and us as players to hopefully see those ratings spike.”

Naughton will  get her first chance to influence those figures on June 30 when Dash play their first game of the Challenge Cup against the Utah Royals.

And while Utah are the host city, the usual advantages of a home venue won’t apply as the tournament is behind-closed-doors.

“In training we've been having some scrimmages and we’ve been fortunate enough to actually play in the stadium here in Houston,” says Naughton. 

"So to kind of have that in our back pack going into the game is a good way to prepare for what we're going to face in Utah and how there's not going to be the noise of the fans, or the distraction of the fans in some cases.

“So it will be an interesting experience and one we will adjust to accordingly but I think we'll deal with it well.”

Naughton is also optimistic about the league’s response to the Black Lives Matter campaign in the aftermath of the George Floyd killing.

She believes it’s fundamental that the league and players are able to speak out on the issues.

"I think [the movement is] great. I think we need to rally around our players, especially our black players, and make sure we’re showing our support and concern with what’s been going on with the world.

"And be grateful to be part of a league that is speaking out and be proactive as we can be. Making sure we all feel inclusive and empowered to speak about these issues because I think that it has been a long time coming.

“And I just hope all the players in the league realise we're behind them and support them through all of this.”

The NWSL Challenge Cup begins on June 27 and NewsChain will be live blogging the opening match between North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns. The kick-off time for the match is 10.30am MDT/ 5.30pm BST.

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