SALT LAKE CITY — The stage is set for live team sports to return to the United States in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
The National Women’s Soccer League on Monday unveiled the full schedule for the preliminary rounds of the NWSL Challenge Cup in Utah, which was announced last week and will be played June 27-July 26 at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman and Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy.
In a live show Monday morning, the first game for each team was announced, and the league released the schedule for the rest of the opening round a short time later. Host Utah Royals FC will open its road on June 30 against former BYU star Ashley Hatch and the D.C.-based Washington Spirit.
URFC will then face the Chicago Red Stars on July 4, Washington-based OL Reign on July 8 and the North Carolina Courage on July 12.
Two games will open the tournament on June 27, as the Red Stars will face the Orlando Pride, and in a matchup of the last three league champions, the Portland Thorns will play the Courage, winners of two straight titles.
After each of the league’s nine teams plays four games in the preliminary round, eight will advance to the quarterfinals. URFC has a tough road, as the Red Stars, Reign and Courage were three of the four teams in the league to make the playoffs last season (the Thorns were the other).
“Very excited,” URFC head coach Craig Harrington said during a Zoom meeting with reporters on Monday. “It’s good. Obviously our league’s stacked with talent across the board, so regardless of anybody we’re going to play, you know they’re going to be tough games, but now we’ve got the fixture list, we’re excited.”
Harrington feels that as much as any challenge a particular opponent might pose, the biggest obstacle will be getting ready to play in such a short amount of time, even if every other team faces the same situation and URFC has the advantage of being at home.
“Ultimately, I think all of us, it’s just the challenge of trying to prepare our teams and make sure that in 30 days that they’re able to compete on the field,” he said.
Harrington said his squad will begin full team training on Tuesday after it has phased from individual training that started early last month to small group training that began last week. He said he’s hopeful to have United States Women’s National Team players Christen Press and Kelley O’Hara in town by the end of this week.
“Tomorrow should be an exciting day,” he said. “We’ll get together for the first time. Me and the staff will be there in our masks and gloves obeying all the protocols. All the players (except Press and O’Hara) will be available and we’ll start attacking this process tomorrow.”
Due to the short time before his team hits the field for the first time at the end of the month, Harrington said the importance of each training session will be magnified.
“We just can’t tip-toe around things,” he said. “We’ve got to buy ourselves in and get going from Day 1 tomorrow.”
Former Alta High School star Kealia Ohai-Watt, who was traded by Houston to Chicago earlier this year, said during the television show Monday morning that as much as anything, she has a feeling of gratitude for the chance to be able to play.
“During quarantine and all of the terrible COVID stuff, we really couldn’t play soccer, and I don’t think a lot of us have been in that situation in a long time, so I have felt so much thankfulness just to be back on the soccer field and to get to play again.
I think that’s what’s so exciting about the tournament, is everyone is just so thankful. For a while, we didn’t know if there was going to be a season this year. I know a lot people thought there wasn’t going to be a season this year, and so that will just bring so much more passion and just excitement to be playing.”
All the initial games and quarterfinals will be played at Zions Bank Stadium. The semifinals and finals will be at Rio Tinto Stadium. All games will be played without fans in the stands but can be viewed on CBS All Access. The first game of the tournament and the final will air on CBS.
No start times for games have been released.