The National Women’s Soccer League resumes Saturday with the Challenge Cup, making it the first North American professional sports league to return to action — before baseball, basketball and other soccer leagues — after the COVID-19 pandemic halted sports all over the country.
The tournament, held at two locations in suburban Salt Lake County, carries with it plenty of intrigue. From a team backing out just days before because of a coronavirus outbreak, to several U.S. Women’s National Team players not participating, to the high probability that the tournament will be the extent of the 2020 NWSL season.
So to get fans ready for what they’ll see on their televisions on CBS and CBS All Access with no spectators being allowed at games, here’s a few things to look for during the Challenge Cup.
Who’s in, who’s out?
For starters, the entire Orlando Pride team is out. After a slew of players and staff members tested positive for COVID-19 this week, the club withdrew from the tournament, much to the disappointment of several veteran players, including national team player Sydney Leroux Dwyer.
“I’m heartbroken,” Leroux Dwyer wrote on Twitter.
Having an entire team out of the tournament likely changes the competition format, but the league has yet to announce anything on that front. Before, eight of the nine teams advanced to the quarterfinals. But with eight teams now, any kind of qualification for subsequent rounds could fall by the wayside.
Players have the choice, without repercussions, to opt out of participating in the tournament. And some of the highest profile players in the world exercised that right. National team stars Christen Press and Megan Rapinoe were among the FIFA Women’s World Cup champions who chose not to play. Carli Lloyd and Mallory Pugh will miss the tournament due to an injury.
In all, nine of the national team players will not play in the Challenge Cup. But that means most will, including Utah Royals FC defender Kelley O’Hara and Portland Thorns defender Becky Sauerbrunn, who was traded to the Thorns by the Royals in the offseason.
Absences, injuries and short rests between games allowed teams to bring in players on short-term contracts and could create opportunities for some of the league’s younger talent to be showcased. Players like Tziarra King and Holly Daugirda of the Royals, Nicole Baxter and Jennifer Cudjoe of Sky Blue, and Carly Nelson and Madison Hammond of the Reign, and many others could all see time throughout the monthlong tournament.
Teams to watch
Soccer is one of the most egalitarian sports. But it’s still driven by star power, and the North Carolina Courage and Red Stars have plenty of it.
Between those two teams, eight players are on the national team. Some of the names include Crystal Dunn, Abby Dahlkemper, Alyssa Naeher and Julie Ertz.
And those are just the U.S. players. Plenty of other World Cup participants are scattered throughout the league, and many of them — Rachel Corsie, Diana Matheson, Katie Bowen — play for the Royals, who are hosting the tournament.
But the teams with multiple stars won’t be the only draw.
The Portland Thorns just so happen to have the top pick in the 2020 NWSL Draft in Sophia Smith. The Spirit added a number of international players in the offseason, include Japanese athlete Kumi Yokoyama, who has scored 17 goals for the national team.
And don’t forget about the Royals, who have a new captain in Amy Rodriguez and will be playing in the comforts of their own altitude and fields. It’s about the only advantage they have as the host club, but it’s an advantage.
While knockout rounds provide the possibility of an upset or two, it’s hard to pick against the North Carolina Courage. Two-time NWSL champions. Best record in the league three years in a row. They somehow got better in the offseason with the additions they made.
Look for the Red Stars, Thorns and possibly even the Spirit to make a run, though. Chicago has multiple national team players participating in the tournament. Washington is a young, up-and-coming team. Portland, while losing French goalkeeper Adrianna Franch to a knee injury, upgraded its already strong defense by adding Sauebrunn.
Plus, the Courage showed some vulnerability last season, losing to the Red Stars, Thorns and Spirit at least once. But North Carolina always steps up when it matters most, which could be the difference.
NWSL CHALLENGE CUP SCHEDULE
All times Mountain
At Zions Bank Stadium
Saturday • NC Courage vs. Portland Thorns FC, 10:30 a.m., CBS and CBS All Access; Chicago Red Stars vs. Washington Spirit, 8 p.m., CBS All Access
Tuesday • Utah Royals FC vs. Houston Dash, 10:30 a.m., CBS All Access; OL Reign vs. NC Courage, 8 p.m., CBS All Access
Wednesday • Portland Thorns vs. Chicago Red Stars, 10:30 a.m., CBA All Access; Washington Spirit vs. NC Courage, 8 p.m., CBS All Access
July 4 • Utah Royals FC vs. Sky Blue FC, 10:30 a.m., CBS All Access; Houston Dash vs. OL Reign, 8 p.m., CBS All Access
July 5 • NC Courage vs. Chicago Red Stars, 10:30 a.m., CBS All Access; Portland Thorns vs. Washington Spirit, 8 p.m., CBS All Access
July 8 • Utah Royals FC vs. OL Reign, 10:30 a.m., CBS All Access; Sky Blue FC vs. Houston Dash, 8 p.m., CBS All Access
July 12 • Houston Dash vs. Washington Spirit, 10:30 a.m., CBS All Access; Utah Royals FC vs. Chicago Red Stars, 8 p.m., CBS All Access
July 13 • OL Reign vs. Portland Thorns, 10:30 a.m., CBS All Access; Sky Blue FC vs. NC Courage, 8 p.m., CBS All Access
July 17 • Quarterfinals, 10:30 a.m. and 8 p.m., CBS All Access
July 19 • Quarterfinals, 10:30 a.m. and 8 p.m., CBS All Access
At Rio Tinto Stadium
July 22 • Semifinals, 10:30 a.m. and 8 p.m., CBS All Access
July 26 • Championship, 10:30 a.m., CBS and CBS All Access