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Portland-North Carolina rivalry match to kick off NWSL Challenge Cup on June 27; most Thorns excited to play according to coach

COURTESY PHOTO: PORTLAND THORNS/CRAIG MITCHELLDYER - Coach Mark Parsons speaks with goalkeeper Adrianna Franch during a Portland Thorns training session on May 30 at Providence Park.The Portland Thorns will take precautions to make sure their players are healthy and prepared on June 27 when the National Women's Soccer League's Challenge Cup tournament begins.

But Portland won't get to ease into the monthlong competition.

During a draw held Monday, the Thorns learned they will open the competition with a match against the defending champion North Carolina Courage. That is one of two games scheduled for the opening day of the tournament, and seems likely to be selected as the match featured nationally on CBS television.

"It's a really exciting game. It's a team that we've got great history with and to come off the bat to be able to go at them I think is a huge positive," Thorns coach Mark Parsons said.

The Thorns other three preliminary-round games will be July 1 against Orlando, July 8 against Washington and July 12 against OL Reign, the new brand for the Puget Sound franchise.

The NWSL Challenge Cup runs June 27 through July 26 in the Salt Lake City, Utah area. All of the preliminary games plus the quarterfinals will be played at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah. The July 22 semifinals and July 26 finals will be at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, home of the host Utah Royals and Real Salt Lake of MLS.

The Thorns held their first full-team training session on Saturday at Providence Park. All of the players on the roster have arrived in Portland. The last of them arrived Monday and players traveling from out of market must complete a quarantine period before joining team sessions.

Parsons did not talk about which players are in the quarantine process. But during a video conference call with reporters, he indicated most of the Thorns seem to be excited about the opportunity to play in the tournament.

Both the NWSL and the U.S. Women's National Team Players Association have said each player has the option to decide to skip the tournament. As part of the agreement with the players union, all players not being paid by the national team will be guaranteed their 2020 salary even if they decide they don't want to play in the tournament.

Parsons said he didn't yet have definite answers about which Thorns players will be going to Utah.

"Everything looks positive. We know we have a high number wanting to be there and wanting to compete," Parsons said.

Parsons said there will be a go/no go date for players to commit to playing, but that the date has not yet been determined or discussed with Thorns players.

"At some point we need to know. We haven't decided that date," he said. "When we talk about that possible date, it's going to involve the players, like everything has throughout this process."

Parsons emphasized that the tournament roster will require every player who travels to Utah to play. The coach is excited to see how players respond to that opportunity, particularly a group of young forwards.

"Every player knows they're going to be needed. They're all going to have a role to play on and off the field," Parsons said. "There's no way we're going to play 11 or 12 or 13 players for the entire tournament. That's not happening."

That the tournament is happening is a tribute to the NWSL leadership, including new commissioner Lisa Baird, and the NWSL Players Association, Parsons said. The detailed work done to protect player safety was impressive, he said.

"Physical health and safety, mental health and safety and emotional state is always going to be (priority) No. 1. The way that our commissioner has driven this process has been very impressive," Parsons said.

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Twitter: @pauldanzer

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