NWSL announces return, Thorns begin training
If all goes as planned, there will be professional soccer in the United States one month from now.
The National Women's Soccer League on Wednesday announced details of a monthlong tournament to be played beginning June 27. All 25 games will be played in the Salt Lake City, Utah, area. There will be no fans at the games.
The tournament is being called the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup.
A game schedule was not immediately announced. Most of the games will be at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah, home of the USL club RSL Monarchs.
Each of the nine NWSL teams will play four preliminary matches. Eight of them will then advance to a knockout phase.
"I'm ready to go. I'm very excited," Thorns defender Emily Menges said. "I'm happy that something's happening and that we'll be able to play some soccer games this summer."
The first game of the tournament and the championship match on July 26 will be televised on CBS. All of the games will be streamed by CBS All Access, a subscription service that costs $5.99 a month (a one-week free trial is available). CBS Sports Network will show all matches on a tape-delay basis.
The NWSL aims to be the first professional team sports league to return, an effort to boost interest in women's soccer and the league.
However, it is unclear if all of the members of the U.S. Women's National Team will participate in the tournament. The first 22 games will be played on an artificial surface at Zions Bank Stadium. The wear and tear from playing on artificial turf has been a point of contention for the U.S. Women's national Team and for other international stars.
The Portland Thorns, of course, play home matches and train on artificial turf at Providence Park.
The U.S. Women's National Team Players Association on Wednesday issued a statement saying that each player can decide for herself whether or not to participate in the NWSL Challenge Cup.
A member of the NWSL Players Association executive committee, the Thorns' Menges has been in involved with the planning for the tournament. She said a few players have reservations about participating, but that she is ready to go and impressed by the level of detail that has gone into promoting player safety.
"This is really the most impressed I've ever been with this league on all of the steps they've taken," Menges said. "They've gone through every possible situation and every caution and have given all the players a chance to answer every single question that we have."
Menges noted that players will be paid their 2020 salary even if they decide not to participate in the tournament.
"It is important for our players to have some sort of financial security, especially since we're being asked to consolidate our season," Menges said. "It's stressful sometimes to leave your life and go play in a city that you don't normally live in. So, to be able to know that we will get paid through the year was huge."
Menges emphasized that the players association wanted to make certain that players aren't pressure into playing. Part of that was the assurance from ownership that the league would continue to operate even if it didn't come up with a way to play games in 2020.
"We wanted it to be very clear that even the players that opt out of this will get paid," Menges said. "Because they're not opting out because they're lazy. They're opting out because this could be a health and safety issue for them personally, so they should not be penalized for that."
On a media conference call, new NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird said that players who decide not to participate, or who change their mind after arriving in Utah, will not be fined or sanctioned by the league.
In addition to their salaries and benefits such as housing and insurance, players with children will be allowed to bring them to Utah.
Menges said Baird held a conference call with all of the league's players and answered all of the questions they raised. As a team, the Thorns had a video chat with team medical personnel.
Menges said that once the plan and protocols were explained, about 95% of the players are supportive of the plan. She did not talk about her Thorns teammates, except to say that the team-wide emotion is "all excitement" about the opportunity to play soccer in 2020.
She said the five-week run-up, beginning this week, is equal to a normal preseason and should be enough time to prepare players to compete safely. Menges noted that she hasn't yet met some of her new teammates.
"Probably that first week (of training) will look something like a disaster," Menges said. "From there, we'll move on. I think it'll come back quick. Five weeks should be enough to get us ready."
Baird said the league received four bids from groups wanting to host the tournament. She said the work of Royals FC owner Dell Loy Hansen to provide housing and all resources the players might need, along with Utah's track record of managing the COVID-19 pandemic, made it the best choice to host the tournament.
Baird did not rule out the league playing beyond this tournament in 2020, depending upon the course of the pandemic and health and government restrictions.
In announcing the tournament, the NWSL made public its protocols for player health, including how it will respond to any positive tests while the teams are in Utah. Those can be linked to through http://nwslsoccer.com.
Dr. Daryl Osbahr, a member of the NWSL Medical Task Force that created the protocols, said there is no established number of positive tests that would cause the tournament to be canceled. He called the protocol "proactive" and noted that given their age and fitness level, the medial effects for players who catch COVID-19 "would not be expected to be significant."
Other than the announcement that the tournament is a go, the most significant news in Wednesday's announcement was that the league has retained and added corporate sponsors despite the pandemic.
P&G, a new sponsor, and Secret are presenting sponsors of the NWSL Challenge Cup. Budweiser remains a major supporter and will be the presenting sponsor of the semifinal and final rounds and of the tournament's most valuable player award.
Also Wednesday, the NWSL announced a multi-year sponsorship agreement with Verizon, another positive step for a league in its eighth season.
Utah Royals FC, as the host club for the tournament, will provide housing, training and competition support for the other eight teams. An Olympic-style village will be used to house participants. Each team will have its own living facility or its own floor of a hotel and players will have their own rooms.
A committee that included a team doctor representing each club established protocols designed to keep participants healthy during the tournament. Each participant, including match officials and essential team staff members, will be tested for COVID-19 48 hours before traveling to Utah. They will be tested again when they arrive in Utah and will be monitored, including ongoing testing and regular temperature checks, throughout their time in Utah.
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