SALT LAKE CITY — League team sports are finally, officially returning to the United States for the first time since March, and Utah will be the epicenter of that return.
On Saturday morning, the National Women’s Soccer League’s eight-team, 23-game Challenge Cup will kick off, with the first 20 games to be held at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman and the semifinals and final at Rio Tinto Stadium, with that last match scheduled for July 26.
“Being the first professional sports league (back) is wild,” Portland Thorns FC and United States Women’s National Team midfielder Lindsey Horan said in a video produced by the Thorns. “We’re the ones starting it. I think you gotta give the NWSL a lot of credit for what they’ve worked towards. ... I am excited about it now and I want to go out and win it.”
“Being the first professional sports league back in the US is wild. We’re the ones starting it.”— Portland Thorns FC (@ThornsFC) June 25, 2020
It’s been a long road, but we’re finally here. Who’s ready? #NWSLChallengeCup #BAONPDX pic.twitter.com/Bo26CPQRt1
Here’s a look at some of the notable names that will be involved, how the tournament will operate in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and other pertinent information.
Who will be playing?
The NWSL consists of nine teams around the United States. All 23 players from the United States Women’s National Team that won the World Cup last summer play in the league, although just 13 of them will be in Utah over the next month.
Beside Horan, Julie Ertz (Chicago Red Stars), Rose Lavelle (Washington Spirit), Crystal Dunn (NC Courage), former Utah Royals FC captain Becky Sauerbrunn (Portland Thorns FC), Lindsey Horan (Thorns) and URFC defender Kelley O’Hara are among the notable names who will be in town.
That said, a bunch of star power will be missing, as Megan Rapinoe (Washington-based OL Reign), Christen Press (URFC) and Tobin Heath (Thorns) opted not to participate (all players had the choice), while others such as Carli Lloyd (Sky Blue FC) are injured.
Three USWNT players from the Orlando Pride will not play after the Pride were forced to withdraw from the tournament because of 10 positive COVID-19 results among players and staff. USWNT and Pride star striker Alex Morgan gave birth to her first child in the spring, and it was unclear if she was going to play before Orlando withdrew. Also on the Pride roster is former USWNT star Sydney Leroux and Brazilian star Marta.
“First of all, we’re just gutted for the whole league for Orlando to have that happen to them, for those players not to get the opportunity to come out and play,” URFC head coach Craig Harrington said earlier this week in a video produced by the team. “Like, who doesn’t want to see Marta play on the field, and then they also have some young and up-coming draft picks that they had that we were all excited to watch.
“Ultimately, we’re all showcasing this league and what we are to the globe within this Challenge Cup format, so they’re going to be a big miss to the tournament and what they bring, however I think it has really hit home to our group that we still have to knuckle down and this is a serious thing.”
Also in Utah will be a number of players with local connections. Kealia Ohai-Watt and Michele Vasconcelos (Chicago teammates) prepped at Alta High School before playing collegiately at North Carolina and BYU, respectively, Darian Jenkins (Reign) prepped at Riverton High School before going to UCLA, Carly Nelson (Reign) and Holly Daugirda (URFC) prepped at Timpanogos High School and Skyline High School, respectively, before being teammates at the University of Utah and Ashley Hatch (Spirit) starred at BYU.
How can you watch the tournament?
No fans will be allowed inside playing venues (a small contingent of media will be for each game), but there are a few other ways games can be seen. The first game of the tournament on Saturday morning at 10:30 a.m. MT between the Courage and Thorns as well as the final on July 26 will air on CBS.
All games, including those two, will be streamed on CBS All Access (subscription required) in the United States and Canada and will reair on CBS Sports Network. The first game of the tournament will re-air on CBSSN Saturday afternoon, and the second game, which will be at 8 p.m. on Saturday between the Red Stars and Spirit, will re-air on Sunday evening.
Outside of the United States and Canada, the tournament can be streamed on Twitch.
How will the tournament work?
Before Orlando withdrew, the nine teams were going to play a preliminary stage, with each team playing four games. One team was then going to be eliminated, and the remaining eight were going to move to the knockout stage, starting with quarterfinals.
Now that there are eight teams, each will play four preliminary games before moving to quarterfinals. The quarterfinal round will be played at Zions Bank Stadium (all games during the duration of the tournament will be played at either 10:30 a.m. or 8 p.m.) on July 17 and 18. The winners will advance to the semifinals at Rio Tinto Stadium, which will be played on July 22.
URFC was originally slated to play a very challenging schedule in the preliminary round, as it drew the Spirit, Red Stars, Reign and Courage, the latter three of whom are perennial championship contenders (the Courage have won the last two league titles and are widely favored to win the tournament).
The reconfigured schedule after the Pride withdrew looks to be considerably easier, as URFC will face the Houston Dash (June 30), Sky Blue FC (July 4), the Reign (July 8) and Red Stars (July 12), the first two perennially among the bottom teams in the league.
As far as games are concerned, there will be some alterations. Chief among them are that there will be no extra time in any game (knockout round games tied at the end of regulation will go straight to penalty kicks), and teams will be allowed five substitutions as opposed to the regular three, although teams will only be able to substitute players at three points during a game.
The NWSL has not definitively said this tournament will be the only league games played in 2020, but it did announce there will be no traditional postseason this year.
Where will teams be staying?
When the tournament was announced in late May, it was revealed that, like MLS and the NBA are on track to do at Disney World in Florida, teams will be staying in a bubble of sorts in Utah, although the term the NWSL has used is “village.”
Most teams and their support personnel will stay at an Embassy Suites in West Valley City, while URFC owner Dell Loy Hansen, who is financing much of the tournament, has said the Reign will be staying at Soleil Lofts in Herriman, an apartment complex Hansen’s company has recently built. URFC players and staff will be able to stay in their own homes.
Last month, Hansen described the village as a place where people will have things to do to stay entertained during down times, and there will be concierge-like support staff that will go in and out of the village to obtain needed things for people so players and support staff don’t leave.
"Above and beyond."— Portland Thorns FC (@ThornsFC) June 26, 2020
From the hotel to the training pitch, the setup here in Utah has everything our squad needs. #BAONPDX pic.twitter.com/jiTjS7U6bY
“Honestly, on your days off you really do want to do things that are low key and relaxed, and so I think initially there was concern about feeling a little bit trapped and unsure what to do, but ultimately, I think we’ll welcome those rest days when it comes,” URFC center back Rachel Corsie said on a Zoom call earlier this week.
Incidentally, West Valley City in which most of the league will be staying is the hardest hit area in the entire state of Utah in terms of total number of coronavirus cases, but all who have traveled to the Beehive State for the tournament will undergo regular testing for the coronavirus.
When the tournament was announced last month, Utah state epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn addressed the importance of everyone involved practicing measures that will keep people as safe as possible.
“Events like this, we strongly encourage social distancing where possible and mask wearing where it’s not, in addition to routinely cleaning surfaces, and I’m sure the ... National Women’s Soccer League will be screening their players and staff for symptoms and not allowing them to play if they are in fact symptomatic,” she said. “We’re following the guidance that we have for all of our events right now.”