The National Women’s Soccer League announced Wednesday it will hold a 25-match tournament called the “Challenge Cup” in Utah this summer in lieu of a traditional 2020 season due to the coronavirus pandemic. The games will feature the league’s nine teams, including the OL Reign, and run from June 27-July 26.
Reign players began reconvening in Washington last week and were tested for the virus. Players, technical staff and front-office employees will be tested again Friday before traveling to Utah this weekend to begin group training.
Utah Royals FC owner Dell Loy Hansen, who made his fortune in real estate, spearheaded the tournament plan. He is providing one of his private planes to transport the Reign to Utah.
“We’ve been in the holding pattern for a couple of months, which was difficult for everybody,” Reign CEO Bill Predmore said via phone in regards to the NWSL announcing the delay of its season in March.
“(Players) have been able to reset their focus, they’ve got sort of a purpose and a target now,” Predmore said. “We shifted from waiting to being all business now.”
The tournament is voluntary, and it was not clear as of Wednesday whether all of the Reign players are willing to participate. There are reports some veteran U.S. Women’s National Team players won’t participate because of concerns about injuries and safety from the disease that doesn’t have a vaccine.
The NWSL Players Association worked closely with new NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird to ensure contracted players receive full benefits, including pay, regardless of their decision.
Final rosters are due June 21. Predmore said the Reign will not set a timeline for when players must decide whether they’re participating and is allowing each player to make her own announcement.
Predmore did confirm forward Yuka Momiki, who was signed last week, did arrive from Japan and is self-quarantining in Tacoma as part of the protocol before joining the Reign. And NWSL is helping the Reign obtain a travel exemption for defender Celia Jimenez Delgado from her native Spain to join the team in Utah.
“This tournament is going to test the depth of a lot of teams,” Predmore said. “There’s going to be short turnaround between the games, and part of what we focused on (during the offseason) was building a deeper squad. That’s going to be helpful for us in this tournament. We’ll see what happens when we get out there.”
Hansen is creating a “NWSL Village” where the clubs will be sequestered for the duration of the tournament and not permitted visitors or family beyond children and their caregivers. There will be frequent testing for COVID-19, Hansen stating via conference call he outsourced those and is not taking any needed tests from Utah residents.
The Reign will have approximately 50 people as part of its travel party, including technical staff, players and front-office personnel.
“There’s no pressure,” said Reign defender Lauren Barnes via conference call Wednesday. “If you opt out for whatever reason, they’re going to support you. With that being the force of all of this, it’s been great because I do think it really does make people feel a little bit more comfortable moving forward and figuring it out as we go. …As long as the protocols are in place and we follow them as players and professionals, I think this could be really fun and really exciting.”
Details of the competition are still being finalized, but each team will play four games in a preliminary round at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah. The top eight teams will advance to play a loser-out tournament, with the semifinals and championship at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah.
All facilities are turf fields.
There won’t be any fans in attendance. The opening match and final will air on CBS, a new broadcast partner for the NWSL. The network will carry the remaining matches online and Predmore said his club is considering ways to engage the Reign fan base, like possibly streaming training or an open Zoom call with players.
Barnes has experience playing without fans. She helped Melbourne City win the Australian W-League in March.
“It’s a different vibe when you’re in these stadiums and they’re empty,” Barnes said. “In terms of showing up to win and being competitive, that never changes at this level.”
NWSL will be the first U.S. pro league of the team sports to hold a season amid the pandemic. Major League Soccer, including Sounders FC, resumed limited training while Major League Baseball, the NHL and the NBA are homing in on similar plans to the NWSL in holding truncated 2020 seasons.
Predmore suspects NWSL having just nine teams allowed more flexibility than the men’s leagues that have between 26-31 teams. But mostly the determination of Hansen and Baird made the tournament happen, according to Predmore.
“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,” Baird said via news release. “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.”
NOTE: The Reign on Wednesday notified season-ticket holders they have the option to have their purchases honored for the 2021 NWSL season or be fully refunded. Although the team could play friendlies after the Challenge Cup, no matches will be played in front of fans this year.