The NWSL Challenge Cup is still scheduled to begin Saturday without spectators in greater Salt Lake City — the first U.S. team sport to return since the pandemic shut down all professional sports leagues in March. The league was to have kicked off its eighth season April 18.
“The health and safety of our players and staff is our number one priority and our thoughts are with those players and staff fighting this infection, as well as the entire club in Orlando that have been impacted as a result,” NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird said in a statement. “We’re all obviously disappointed, but in the current environment, this is a situation that we have prepared for and we will now adjust our plans and schedules to reflect the circumstances.”
An updated schedule for the eight remaining teams will be distributed soon, the league said.
Last week, the league announced a player had tested positive but did not disclose her name or team.
The tournament will run through July 26, with players and staff living in an “NWSL village” and undergoing regular testing.
MLS is also conducting a summer tournament (July 8 through Aug. 11 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando) and is formulating plans to resume the regular season, which was suspended in March after two weeks.
From June 14 to 21, Florida reported 21,723 new cases, the most in the state in a one-week period since the pandemic began. South Florida has been hardest hit over the past three months, but central Florida has also been seriously affected.
In the wake of the Pride’s announcement, Washington Spirit players and staff discussed matters on a conference call later Monday. All players are still likely to travel, one person close to the team said.
The Spirit is scheduled to charter to Salt Lake City on Wednesday, though its route will first take it to Raleigh, N.C., to pick up the defending champion North Carolina Courage.
The tournament is expected to be the league’s only competition of the year following Monday’s release of the event’s roster rules, which said the players’ financial incentives this season are exclusively tied to the Utah competition.
“The 2020 NWSL season will be defined by the NWSL as the number of games played by a team in the tournament,” the league said. “For example, this means that for two teams (those making the final) the 2020 NWSL season will include 7 games.”
The league also said there will be no postseason, “so it will not be possible for players to earn any incentives based on postseason/playoff achievements,” and it will not issue season awards. It will, however, give tournament awards, such as MVP and Best XI.
The league has not announced plans to start the regular season in home markets late this summer or in the fall, but one person close to the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the outlook could change, said “more likely than not” the tournament will serve as the only formal competition this year.
“The only way [the NWSL] plays the regular season,” the person added, “is if there is a path to opening stadiums for [a large number of] fans, and that’s pretty low.”
The league’s economic health relies heavily on ticket sales and game-day revenue.
CBS is scheduled to carry the tournament opener between North Carolina and the Portland Thorns, the first over-the-air national broadcast of a U.S. women’s pro soccer game. CBS will also show the final; all other matches will be available on CBS’s digital platform.
Under the original nine-team format, every club was scheduled to play four first-round matches, with all but one advancing to the knockout stage. The early round and quarterfinals will take place at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah. Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, will stage the semifinals and final.
The NWSL will follow temporary international guidelines by allowing five substitutions (instead of three). Knockout matches that are tied after 90 minutes will go directly to a penalty kick tiebreaker (instead of first playing 30 minutes of extra time).
The league will announce rosters soon, with several U.S. national team players expected to skip the tournament. They include Alex Morgan, who gave birth six weeks ago, and Carli Lloyd, who has a minor knee injury. Others, including Megan Rapinoe, have reservations about playing during the pandemic.
As part of the tournament’s labor agreements, players who choose to not participate will still get paid.