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It’s official: Pro team sports to make United States return in Utah with NWSL Challenge Cup

SHARE It’s official: Pro team sports to make United States return in Utah with NWSL Challenge Cup
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FILE: Utah Royals FC’s Rachel Corsie (2) attempts to head the ball on a corner kick at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy on Saturday, April 20, 2019. The National Women’s Soccer League announced Wednesday that it will hold a 25-game tournament — called the NWSL Challenge Cup — at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman and Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy June 27-July 26.

Silas Walker, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — It’s official: Pro team sports will make their return in the United States in Utah.

As has been reported for a few weeks now, the National Women’s Soccer League announced Wednesday that it will hold a 25-game tournament — called the NWSL Challenge Cup — at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman and Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy June 27-July 26.

“With the efforts of our frontline workers, our state’s early adoption of preventative measures, and our facilities at Zions Bank Real Academy, Rio Tinto Stadium and America First Credit Union Field, Utah is uniquely prepared to host the nine teams in the NWSL and put on a tremendous tournament,” Utah Royals FC owner Dell Loy Hansen said in a statement. “With the full support of the governor (Gary Herbert) and the medical experts in our community, we are thrilled to bring the tournament to Utah.”

No fans will be in attendance, but the entire tournament can be viewed online on CBS All Access, and the opener and championship game will also air live on CBS. Games will re-air on CBS Sports Network. Fans outside the U.S. and Canada can stream the full tournament on Twitch.

A full tournament schedule, including game times and broadcast details, will be provided in the days to come, but the tournament will feature the league’s nine clubs each playing four games in the preliminary rounds to determine seeding. The top eight teams will advance to the quarterfinals, when the tournament becomes a knockout competition.

“Utah is home to strong health care systems and dedicated medical professionals — and public health and safety are always a top priority for our communities. Because of those factors, I believe our state will be a great location for the National Women’s Soccer League to host its competition in 2020.” — Utah Governor Gary Herbert

All 23 players on the popular United States Women’s National Team compete in the NWSL, although there have been reports in recent days that some plan to not travel to Utah and play in the tournament (USWNT players’ salaries are paid for by U.S. Soccer, not the league).

URFC head coach Craig Harrington said in a Zoom meeting Wednesday that the team will be in ongoing communication with its two USWNT players — Christen Press and Kelley O’Hara — concerning whether or not they’ll participate.

“It’s something that we’re going through and we’re working on a plan with them right now to get into market and to begin those conversations,” he said.

The NWSL players association said Wednesday that it is “excited to provide players the opportunity to return to sport, while also securing compensation and other necessities to make sure players’ concerns, feedback and safety are at the forefront of all conversations.”

Hansen will accommodate all housing, training and competition needs for the league’s nine teams and create an “NWSL Village” to control as much of the environment as possible. Teams will train at Zions Bank Real Academy in Herriman and America First Field in Sandy, URFC’s normal training grounds.

As has been the case with leagues throughout the country, safety was a primary concern in negotiations with players about returning to action. The NWSL said Wednesday that each player, official and essential staff member will be tested for the coronavirus 48 hours prior to departure for Utah and upon arrival and will be subject to consistent testing, temperature readings and symptom review throughout their stay in Utah.

A lengthy additional set of protocols has been put in place to protect safety, most notably a protocol for people who test positive for the virus. Facilities will close immediately if a player or staff member tests positive for COVID-19 to allow for appropriate contact tracing of all players and staff who have been present for team activities within 48 hours of when the individual tested positive. Once in Utah, this includes the entire team. 

Additionally, if no games have commenced and proper cleaning of shared facilities (i.e. weight room) have been conducted, then other teams can continue routine surveillance. If games have started, then the opposing team also needs to conduct appropriate contact tracing of all players and staff if the game occurred within 48 hours of a positive test.

Players or staff with an “abnormal daily screen” or who develop symptoms will be required to wear a mask and will be isolated from their team. If the individual has two negative tests more than 24 hours apart, they can return to practice and team activities.

“Utah is home to strong health care systems and dedicated medical professionals — and public health and safety are always a top priority for our communities,” Herbert said in a statement. “Because of those factors, I believe our state will be a great location for the National Women’s Soccer League to host its competition in 2020. I’m grateful to Dell Loy Hansen for his work to find a solution that we believe will benefit the league and our community as a whole.”

On a conference call Wednesday, NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird, who assumed her role just a few days before the league shut down in March, said the tournament has been in the works essentially since then and she went on final site visits this week with Hansen, Herbert and local health officials to all of the venues in Utah that will be used for all aspects of the tournament.

“When Dell Loy came in with the host city bid, things took off pretty quickly from there,” she said.

Baird noted that coronavirus testing will be paid for through the league’s insurance.

“We’re hoping to provide a safe, comfortable environment for all of the players to come into this market and I’m really looking forward to it and showing off what Utah has to offer.” — URFC captain Amy Rodriguez

URFC head coach Craig Harrington, who has yet to coach his team in a game, said during a Zoom meeting Wednesday, “I’m really excited...there were lots of question marks about us, where we’re going, so for us to actually get on the field this year and compete, it’s what we do. It’s how we pay our bills. It’s our jobs, so I’m personally really, really excited about the opportunity to get out there and also see where we’re at.”

URFC captain Amy Rodriguez, who a few weeks ago told media that she felt like play was a long ways off, said in the Zoom meeting Wednesday, “I am so excited to kick off this tournament. I think that the organization — Utah Royals, NWSL, the players association — have all worked really hard to organize a top-notch tournament, a safe space for us to play.”