It took the better part of two months to figure out how and where the National Women’s Soccer League would continue play after its season got postponed due to COVID-19. But one location stood above the rest.
“Early on, the state of Utah caught our eye because of how well the pandemic challenges were being handled by the state and the public health officials,” NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird said Wednesday in a conference call.
That’s where Dell Loy Hansen came in. Hansen — who owns Real Salt Lake, the Utah Royals and the Real Monarchs — put in the bid three weeks ago for Utah to host a tournament that would bring the other eight NWSL teams to the Beehive State — namely Sandy and Herriman, where the organization’s many soccer facilities reside.
“Things took off pretty quickly then,” Baird said.
The Royals will host the newly announced Challenge Cup, a 25-game tournament that begins June 27 and ends July 26. The first four matches for teams will determine seeding for the quarterfinal, semifinal and final rounds, all of which are knockout style. The full schedule will be released in the coming days.
The semifinal and final rounds will occur at Rio Tinto Stadium, home of the Royals and RSL. All other matches will be played at Zions Bank Stadium, where the Monarchs play their home games.
The tournament garnered unanimous support from the NWSL players union and team owners. Royals captain Amy Rodriguez said during a Thursday Zoom call that she felt everyone involved worked hard to organize a top-notch, safe tournament.
“I feel very comfortable with the health regulations, the protocol, the situation,” Rodriguez said. “I’m just really looking forward to putting my boots back on.”
The logistics of the tournament seems to have been quite an undertaking. Not only did Baird have to choose between four potential locations before landing on Utah, but the league had to secure housing, coronavirus testing, compensation, accommodations for mothers’ children and caregivers, and contingencies for positive tests for every player.
Hansen’s wealth and foothold on real estate in Utah helped make it easier to get everything happening off the field off the ground. A “village atmosphere” is what’s being created, and that will include lodging for the players. Hansen said during the conference call that “an entire Embassy Suites hotel” will be taken over to house some teams.
Hansen told The Salt Lake Tribune in a separate interview that he paid $700,000 to help subsidize the tournament in an effort for the league’s owners to break even. New league sponsorships also helped with that endeavor.
But there are still questions to be answered. It’s currently unknown whether the tournament will be the extent of NWSL competition for 2020. Furthermore, the tournament is completely voluntary, which means it’s possible star players like U.S. Women’s National Team and Royals regular starters Christen Press and Kelley O’Hara opt out.
Press and O’Hara are not currently in Utah. Royals coach Craig Harrington said he’s in discussions with both of them about coming back into market and playing in the tournament and hopes they’ll be in Utah “as soon as possible.”
Hansen told The Tribune that O’Hara will arrive in Utah after June 1, after she takes care of some personal business. He added that Press has been training in Portland, but it’s less clear if she’ll come to Utah.
Still, Rodriguez approved of the fact that players can choose not to participate if they feel uncomfortable for any reason.
“At the end of the day, we just wanted everybody safe and comfortable and happy,” Rodriguez said.
Baird said the tournament won’t allow spectators. But Hansen said that the state of Utah actually gave the green light for 900 fans in a stadium. That idea wasn’t introduced to the players, Hansen said, because “they’ve got enough fears to get over.” But once the players all convene in Utah, that topic may be broached.
“Right now, we’ve committed to run the tournament without fans,” Hansen said. “We would like to add that energy and invite fans into the stadium because we think that’s the second part that’s really important. It’s not just playing the games, but trying to bring the game back to what it was, appropriately and safely.”
However, Hansen stressed that if players are at all uncomfortable with fans in the stands, it won’t happen.
Harrington said even though spectators won’t be allowed at the games, the simple fact that the tournament in is Utah — an environment the Royals live and work in — will give URFC a leg up.
“We’re all at home,” Harrington said. “To say there is no advantage, I think that would be very naive of us.”
One of the biggest questions as news of the tournament, called the Challenge Cup, began to surface in the past two weeks is when and how often players will be tested for the coronavirus. That question appears to have been answered. The league released a slew of medical protocols, including what happens if a player tests positive for COVID-19.
Dr. Daryl Osbahr, who sits on the NWSL Medical Task Force, said there isn’t a magic number of positive tests that would cause a complete shutdown of the tournament. He acknowledged that a certain number of positives was inevitable and that the protocols created in that case were created in a robust enough way with an eye toward handing it as best as possible.
“The good part about the teams that we have, and the age group, and the fitness level of the players we have, is that even if they were to test positive and asymptomatic, the medical effects would certainly not be expected to be significant,” Osbahr said. “However, we always want to be mindful of the fact that we still need to respect any potential positive tests we get and be very thorough with how we follow that up.”
Baird said the league’s insurance covers all the testing, which will be administered before players and staffs arrive in Utah and frequently throughout the tournament.