The Utah Royals FC starts full team training sessions Tuesday after weeks of individual training and just a week of small group training. It happened just in time, too, as the Royals got their draw for the Challenge Cup.
National Women’s Soccer League Commissioner Lisa Baird revealed Monday that the Royals, who are hosting the monthlong tournament in Utah, are the No. 4 seed and will play the No. 2 seed Washington Spirit on Tuesday, June 30, at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman.
Additionally, the Royals play the Red Stars on July 4, the Reign on July 8 and the Courage on July 12. All three teams made the playoffs in 2019. Utah is 4-1-1 all-time against the Spirit.
But Royals coach Craig Harrington said in a Monday Zoom call with media that it doesn’t matter what opponent his team drew. They all present their challenges.
“Obviously our league is stacked with talent across the board," Harrington said. "So regardless of anybody we’re going to play, you know they’re going be tough games.”
The tournament starts June 27 with the Orlando Pride playing the Chicago Red Stars, and the Portland Thorns facing the North Carolina Courage. The Courage have won the past two NWSL championships, beating the Thorns in 2019 and the Red Stars in 2019.
Sky Blue FC and the OL Reign also play June 30. On July 1, the Houston Dash play the Courage, and the Thorns face off against the Pride.
A month of full training before the tournament starts is a shorter time frame than a typical preseason. Add on the four days between games — usually it’s a full week during the season — and injury prevention and recovery become a top priority for the monthlong competition.
The players on the U.S. Women’s National Team have an agreement with the NWSL that its players will have minutes restrictions, Harrington said, although he added the restrictions will be a game-by-game decision.
Harrington said he doesn’t think any of his players will have played 90 minutes by the time June 30 rolls around. It’s important that as many of the Royals are available and healthy by then, and that they have enough knowledge of what they’re doing tactically. He also said recovery will be key throughout the tournament.
“It’s short rest in between games — it’s play, recover, play, recover,” Harrington said. “We need to make sure by the time we get to that Game 1 against Washington, that we know ourselves inside out.”
Eight of the nine teams will advance to the knockout quarterfinal round. The semifinal and final rounds will be played at Rio Tinto Stadium, home of the Royals and Real Salt Lake.
The NWSL will become the first professional sports league to return to play after the COVID-19 pandemic postponed or canceled seasons throughout the sports landscape.
CHALLENGE CUP PRELIMINARY ROUND SCHEDULE
June 27: Chicago vs. Orlando; North Carolina vs. Portland
June 30: Washington vs. Utah; OL Reign vs. Sky Blue
July 1: Portland vs. Orlando; North Carolina vs. Houston
July 4: Chicago vs. Utah; Washington vs. OL Reign
July 5. North Carolina vs. Orlando; Houston vs. Sky Blue
July 8: Washington vs. Portland; Utah vs. OL Reign
July 9: Orlando vs. Sky Blue; Chicago vs. Houston
July 12: Utah vs. North Carolina, Portland vs. OL Reign
July 13: Chicago vs. Sky Blue; Washington vs. Houston