The National Women’s Soccer League this morning revealed plans for their return to play, detailing plans for a one-month tournament that will take place in Utah. The 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup, which will kick off on June 27 and run through July 26, makes the league the first in American team sports to plan their return from the stoppages resulting from the coronavirus pandemic. Notably, NWSL has secured two major sponsors for the event, with Procter & Gamble and Secret deodorant signing on.
NWSL also used the occasion to announce a “multi-year partnership” with Verizon, though they are not listed as a presenting sponsor for this event. Equalizer Soccer is reporting that the Verizon pact runs through 2021.
Though the full schedule has yet to be announced, NWSL said that CBS will air the tournament’s opening game as well as the final, while every game of the tournament will be streamed live online in the U.S. and Canada on the CBS All Access platform. The league’s press release also notes that games “will re-air on CBS Sports Network.” International viewers will be able to watch every game of the Challenge Cup on Twitch. CBS and Twitch were both brought in as the NWSL’s new broadcast partners in March.
“As our country begins to safely reopen and adjust to our collective new reality, and with the enthusiastic support of our players, owners, as well as our new and current commercial partners, the NWSL is thrilled to bring professional soccer back to the United States,” said NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird in a written statement provided by the league. “This exciting month-long tournament will showcase our league’s talented players and provide our fans the type of world-class entertainment they’ve come to expect from the NWSL.”
“The NWSLPA, working closely alongside NWSL, 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,” said NWSLPA Executive Directors Yael Averbuch and Brooke Elby in a statement also provided by the league. “As the plans for the tournament unfolded, it was our priority as the NWSLPA to protect our players, and we feel that NWSL shares those values.”
The NWSL Players Association made a further statement on their Twitter account, detailing several important protections that they were able to secure in talks with the NWSL. The NWSLPA listed contract guarantees for 2020, insurance coverage for the entire year, accommodations for players who have children, and some degree of say in the tournament’s overall structure.
The tournament will see each team play four games in a preliminary round. The worst team in those games will be eliminated, while the remaining eight will be seeded and placed into a traditional knockout tournament bracket. Full details on whether those games would have extra time or just proceed directly to penalty kicks if the scores were tied after 90 minutes have not been announced at this time.
The semifinals and final of the Challenge Cup will be played at Rio Tinto Stadium, the home of Utah Royals FC. The rest of the tournament will be played at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah. That venue, the home of Real Salt Lake’s USL Championship affiliate Real Monarchs, has an artificial turf surface; Rio Tinto Stadium has natural grass. Among many details in a report from The Athletic yesterday, teams will all train at Real Salt Lake’s academy as well as at Royals FC’s training field just south of Rio Tinto Stadium. Fans will be barred from all games and training sessions.
Conflicting reports have noted a varying amount of worry among USWNT players about the tournament, with the possibility of at least some of the league’s biggest names opting out of the tournament. The USWNT Players Association provided a statement to ESPN’s Graham Hays which essentially leaves it up to each player to decide for themselves whether they’ll participate or not:
According to Washington Post reporter Steve Goff, the Washington Spirit are currently planning on the participation of every player under contract, including USWNT regulars Rose Lavelle and Andi Sullivan:
Washington Spirit Coach Richie Burke says all of his players, including USWNT's Rose Lavelle and Andi Sullivan, will participate.— Steven Goff (@SoccerInsider) May 27, 2020
In the meantime, the Spirit will continue training at an undisclosed location in preparation for the tournament. The club told Black and Red United on Monday that they are currently in Phase 2 of the NWSL’s protocols, which allow for sessions involving groups that can be no longer than eight players. They cannot yet train at the Maryland SoccerPlex, which was closed by local authorities through at least June 1. However, the Spirit currently are operating under the assumption that they will enter Phase 3 on May 30, and will be able to hold full-team training sessions at the Plex on June 1.
The NWSL will pay the costs for up to 35 people (up to 28 players and 7 staff members) to travel to Utah, with teams footing the bill for any additional personnel. Teams will be required to bring a head coach, assistant coach, goalkeeping coach, their head athletic trainer, a sports scientist, and an equipment manager as part of their staff. The league’s full protocols for training, testing, sanitation, and what they would do in the event of a positive test are all available on the league site.