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Kristin Murphy, KSL, File

What you need to know about soccer's return to Utah via the NWSL Challenge Cup

By Sean Walker, | Posted - May 28, 2020 at 9:27 a.m.

HERRIMAN — There are still plenty of unknowns surrounding the National Women’s Soccer League 2020 season amid the coronavirus pandemic.

But one thing is known for sure with Wednesday morning’s announcement of a 9-team, 25-game tournament in Utah dubbed the NWSL Challenge Cup: there will be soccer this summer.

“I’m so excited to kick off this tournament,” Utah Royals FC forward Amy Rodriguez said. “I think the organization, the NWSL, the players association have all worked really hard to organize a top-notch tournament and safe space for us to play.

“I feel very comfortable with the regulations and protocols. I’m just really looking forward to putting my boots back on.”

The tournament, which was first reported by the Washington Post, will be played out over a month, beginning June 27 with a championship match airing on CBS on July 26. In between, there will be a group stage between the league’s nine teams, with eight advancing to a knockout tournament, and all games streamed live on CBS All Access, the league’s current multiyear broadcast partner.

Groups will be arranged via random draw, and Real Salt Lake and Utah Royals owner Dell Loy Hansen has promised to set up an NWSL village — taking up an entire block of a nearby Embassy Suites hotel — to maintain a quarantine bubble and prevent outbreaks of the virus.

The matches will be played without fans, with the bulk of games played at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, training taking place at the RSL Academy and America First Field in Sandy, and the semifinals and championship scheduled for Rio Tinto Stadium.

Pro soccer returns to the U.S. next month when the National Women's Soccer League starts a 25-game tournament in a pair of stadiums in Utah that will be kept clear of fans to protect players from the coronavirus. Players from the nine teams will train and live at two Salt Lake City-area hotels, the league announced Wednesday, May 27, 2020. (Photo: Rick Bowmer, AP Photo, File)

Despite what may be perceived as a lack of atmosphere, the Royals intend to take full advantage of the home-field advantage, too.

“I think we have to use our advantage,” Utah coach Craig Harrington said. “We’re all at home, and to say there is no advantage would be really naive of us.

“The teams are going to have to adjust to that. But ultimately I know the coaches and players in this league are good enough that they will adapt.”

The announcement marks the NWSL as the first major professional sports league to return from the COVID-19 hibernation of the past two months, though Major League Soccer, baseball, the NHL and NBA are all in varying degrees of talks to resume play this summer. The PGA Tour will also return this June, with limited audiences (outside of television) and other health practices in place to limit the spread of the virus.

Being first was never the league’s intention, or at least not its primary motivation, NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird said on a conference call with reporters. Baird wants to return to as safe an environment as possible, which is why she’s included the tournament’s medical protocol on the league’s website.

But it does give the league a step up to continue the season in the fall, or momentum for a 2021 campaign. Neither scenario is finalized, despite a report in the New York Times saying the NWSL Challenge Cup will supersede a 2020 season in its entirety.

“With a lot of things being so uncertain in the world, I think the owners are prepared for both scenarios,” Utah Royals general manager Stephanie Lee said. “This could be all that we get out of the year, but it could also be just the beginning. Nothing has been solidified on that.”

Additional questions surrounded who will be playing in the tournament. Harrington said each of the Royals are currently in the Salt Lake area, save newly signed midfielder Aminata Diallo, and U.S. internationals Christen Press and Kelley O’Hara.

But a statement from the U.S. women’s national team players’ association indicated that participation in the tournament from the players in the national team pool was strictly optional, and Rodriguez confirmed Wednesday that any player who does not feel safe or otherwise able to return to play will not be forced to do so.

“If players feel as they are unsafe, it’s not required or mandated they participate,” said Rodriguez, who has two sons and represents a vocal minority of mothers in the league. “For players who have concerns that aren’t addressed, they can opt out.

“At the end of the day, we want everybody safe and comfortable.”

But the emergence of a contracted tournament in 2020 solves a massive barrier of negotiations from the league: the ratification of an agreement between the NWSL and NWSL players association securing guaranteed contracts, including salary, housing and benefits; insurance for the entire calendar year; accommodations for housing and children; and input in tournament procedures to ensure player safety and well-being.

Whether June and July is the only soccer played in the North American women’s game, the agreement sends a message that the season is not “make or break” for the NWSL.

“It was definitely critical,” said Lee, who was not directly involved in the negotiations but was privy as a third party to both sides of the conversation between the league and players' association. “I think it was vital. If you look at any other league out there, the PAs are all involved. Everyone is consulting the players in what they feel comfortable with and what will be the right path back.”

NWSL has illuminated the path back to a return of sports in a coronavirus society.

But the next steps will be equally enlightening.

“I’m really excited,” Harrington said. “At some point, whether we were going to have a season, there were questions. At the end of the day, the chance to get on the field is really exciting.”

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