The National Women’s Soccer League on Wednesday laid out an ambitious, and potentially risky, plan to return to the field late next month for its first games since the start of its 2020 season was interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.
Under the schedule that league officials outlined Wednesday morning, the nine teams would gather in Utah in late June and complete their entire seasons as a 25-game tournament over 30 days.
The proposed event, to be called the N.W.S.L. Challenge Cup, will be an Olympic-style tournament with a group-play stage and then an eight-team knockout tournament. The games — the first is set for June 27 — will be the league’s first competition since last October’s championship game, and will succeed only through a mix of careful planning, extensive virus testing, strict health protocols and no small amount of good fortune.
And all of it hinges on the players’ willingness to participate, the absence of new outbreaks and hundreds of tests before and after the games arrive in Utah.
All of the matches will be played in the Salt Lake City suburbs of Herriman and Sandy, the home of one of the league’s teams, Utah Royals F.C.
Under the format the N.W.S.L. has proposed, each team would play four games at the 5,000-seat Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman to determine seedings for an eight-team knockout round that will follow. The semifinals and final (set for July 26) would be played at the larger Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, the home of the Royals.
No fans will be allowed to attend any of the games. CBS will broadcast the tournament opener and the final, and the other games will be available live on the network’s CBS All Access streaming platform.
Dell Loy Hansen, the Utah Royals owner, and his organization will be the de facto host. Hansen, who also owns the Major League Soccer team Real Salt Lake and the two Utah stadiums, will use his team’s expansive training complex to accommodate all of the teams’ training and competition needs. The league plans to partner with two area hotels to house all nine teams and their staff members in what the league is calling an “N.W.S.L. Village” — an effort at a quasi-quarantine that it hopes will lessen the risk of coronavirus infection for all involved.
Details of the event are not final. As recently as Tuesday, league officials and representatives of the players associations representing the league’s rank-and-file players and the members of the United States women’s national team were still working to negotiate testing and isolation protocols, best practices to avoid contracting or spreading the virus, and off-the-field guarantees for the teams and their players both during pretournament camps in their home cities and at the Utah event itself.
It is unclear how many of the members of the United States women’s national team, who represent the bulk of the league’s best players and marquee attractions, will take part. The team members remain split on playing, according to two people with knowledge of their plans, with some eager to get back on the field and others wary of the health and injury risks of a compressed season played — except for the semifinals and final — on artificial turf and during an ongoing pandemic.
Still, the league’s ability to forge a plan that would save its season when other women’s leagues have failed qualifies as a success. Under its new commissioner, Lisa Baird, the N.W.S.L. has even managed to sign three new commercial partners: P&G and Secret, who will serve as presenting sponsors for the Challenge Cup, and Verizon, which will announce a multiyear agreement with the league on Wednesday.