Summer tournaments provided women's soccer with its most indelible images, from Brandi Chastain in the Rose Bowl in 1999 to Megan Rapinoe in Lyon two decades later. Now the National Women's Soccer League hopes a tournament without an array of international anthems can capture the imagination of fans eager for live sports amid a pandemic.
Its eighth regular season on hold for more than a month because of the coronavirus pandemic, the league announced this week that it will host the NWSL Challenge Cup in the Salt Lake City area beginning on June 27. The monthlong tournament will feature all nine teams and, as things currently stand, mark the return of professional team sports in the United States.
"There are some times when you see America and Americans fall in love with a sport," NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird said. "It just felt like, with everything that has happened, professional women's soccer was going to have a year this year to pay that off. I think the tournament format that we came up with was a very innovative solution that gives, in a compressed amount of time, Americans a really exciting single-elimination knockout tournament."
That's an optimistic vision for a league that has survived far longer than its predecessors but still struggled at times to transform interest in the U.S. women's national team into a consistent nationwide audience for a professional venture featuring many of those stars.
How will the NWSL try to pull it off and what is still unknown? Here's what you need to know.
How did we arrive at the NWSL Challenge Cup?
NWSL teams were in the early days of preseason when the sports world shut down in March in response to the pandemic. The league canceled its preseason schedule and issued a training moratorium on March 12, the same day the NCAA canceled its men's and women's basketball tournaments. Soon after, the league extended the training moratorium into the first week of April, postponing the scheduled April 18 start of the regular season.
The league subsequently announced that players could begin individual workouts at team facilities on May 6, subject to state and local health mandates -- leaving players in markets such as Chicago, New York-New Jersey and Seattle-Tacoma initially unable to begin such sessions. For teams in areas where it was permitted, the second phase of a return began this week with small group training of up to eight players. The NWSL also announced that full team training could begin May 30, where allowed, provided five days of small group training had been completed.
But instead of trying to play out a delayed version of its regular season, necessitating extensive travel and the use of nine facilities in nine states -- some in very different phases of a reopening process than others -- the league settled on the tournament plan announced last week.
According to Baird, the league received four bids to host the event but quickly focused on Utah. Baird cited the state's overall record responding to the pandemic and the resources Utah Royals FC owner Dell Loy Hansen brought to the table -- including Rio Tinto Stadium and Zions Bank Stadium, a training complex with multiple practice fields and plans for accommodations.
Hansen told the Salt Lake Tribune that he also paid $700,000 to help subsidize the cost of the tournament. In a conference call with media, Hansen said there was a chance the event could pay for itself.
What is the tournament format?
All nine teams will participate in an opening phase -- not technically a group phase but serving essentially the same purpose as that familiar device in major tournaments. Schedules were set by a draw on June 1. The opening day of games on June 27 features two-time defending NWSL champion North Carolina playing Portland and Chicago playing Orlando. Only the lowest-ranked team will be eliminated after this phase concludes on July 13, with eight teams advancing to the knockout rounds.
OL Reign CEO Bill Predmore said there was extensive debate among owners about whether to move directly from the group phase to semifinals, eliminating five teams, or adopt the existing format with a quarterfinal round. Part of the thinking in opting for the quarterfinals, Predmore said, was allowing teams more leeway for lineup rotation in the group games as players regain match fitness. In other words, they won't call the group games preseason, but they aren't far off.
The league will release more details on rules and format in the days ahead, but Predmore said teams will have five substitutions per game, as has been standard in Germany's Bundesliga since it became the first major soccer league to return to competition earlier this month. He also said it was all but certain that teams will be able to have an active roster of 20 players.
Is this the only NWSL soccer that will be played this year?
It seems likely. Baird wouldn't commit to that reality Wednesday, but it's difficult to envision many scenarios in which a modified regular season could begin in August or September and still conclude with any sort of postseason. The regular season was originally scheduled to wrap up on Oct. 18, with semifinals on Nov. 8 and the final on Nov. 14 at a site yet to be announced.
"I think like many businesses and many leagues around the United States, they're planning for what they can do now," Baird said. "And we're always going to be aware and attentive for what happens in the future. What I can assure you is that between us, the NWSLPA, our owners, anything that we do in the fall will be guided by the care and safety of our players and, of course, what happens with state and local public health guidance."
Predmore said OL Reign season-ticket holders were informed Wednesday of the option to roll over those tickets for 2021 or receive a full refund, indicating there are no plans to revive the schedule that was released in February. But he also said several teams have discussed continuing training beyond the summer tournament and further play isn't out of the question -- whether in the form of friendlies or even a second tournament-type event.
"Nothing that was announced today would preclude any of those outcomes," Predmore said. "I don't think there's any certainty on any of those right now. We'll just have to wait and see."
Will there be any fans?
Very likely not, although Baird somewhat surprisingly didn't rule it out entirely Wednesday.
"We need to develop a financial proposition that allows us to put on an incredible tournament," Baird said of the thought process. "We've been able to do that with the help of Dell Loy and our sponsors that allowed our owners to unanimously vote in support of paying our players through the rest of the year. And the way we did it is we didn't want to be dependent on ticket revenue to do that. ... So right now we are not planning for any spectators.
"What the states allow and what they don't allow is the guidance we're going to follow. And what the CDC allows and what they don't allow is the guidance that we're going to follow above all. Right now, we're not looking at spectators at this point in time."
As of now, only the opening game and final will be televised on a linear network, with all other games available on CBS' streaming platform and re-airing on its cable sports channel. The league and CBS agreed to a broadcast deal earlier this year.
Will the USWNT players participate?
There are still a lot of questions about what the Challenge Cup will look like, but this is likely to be the question that receives the most attention. A year after they won the World Cup (the Challenge Cup opener in Utah is a day before the one-year anniversary of the thrilling U.S. quarterfinal win against host France in Paris), the status of U.S. players is uncertain.
One source with knowledge of the discussions confirmed to ESPN multiple reports that U.S. players are not of a collective mind about the NWSL tournament. And the national team's union issued a statement Wednesday saying the decision would be an individual one for each player. A source with connections to U.S. Soccer confirmed that the players would continue to receive their full NWSL salaries, which are paid by the federation for allocated players, regardless of their participation in the Challenge Cup.
The risk of injury posed by playing a monthlong tournament on predominantly artificial turf is no greater for national team players than non-national team players stuck without access to full training in recent months, but the prospect of the rescheduled 2021 Olympics does arguably raise the stakes for players reluctant to risk any injury that could jeopardize their 2021 status.
Plus, there are understandable concerns about returning to play amid a pandemic.
Teams have until June 21 to submit final rosters for the tournament.
Among early signalers, North Carolina Courage and U.S. midfielder Sam Mewis left little doubt as to her intentions.
"I think we are just excited for the opportunity to play," Mewis said of the Courage. "I know myself and my teammates just want to showcase what we can do and compete again. I think that's what we've all been missing the most is that sense of competition and wanting to be the best."
What about the rest of the players?
Baird confirmed what Yael Averbuch, co-executive director of the National Women's Soccer League Players Association, told The Athletic on Wednesday. Non-allocated players will receive their full salaries and benefits regardless of whether they take part in the Challenge Cup.
That agreement was essential in getting the NWSLPA to give the plan its full support.
"As the plans for the tournament unfolded, it was our priority as the NWSLPA to protect our players," Averbuch and co-executive director Brooke Elby said in a statement. "And we feel that NWSL shares those values."
A defender who is among the league's all-time appearance leaders, OL Reign's Lauren Barnes said she felt no pressure to play from either her team or the league.
"I'm obviously really excited that we are going to be able to play soccer," Barnes said. "Given the circumstances of the world right now, obviously it's going to look different than a normal season, so you can't really compare it to a normal season. ... I think with Reign, they've provided and been super transparent and honest with [the medical protocols]. I think pretty much our whole team is on board, and we're ready to go and excited."
Baird also said she spoke with players in the league who have children and is committed to finding a way to allow those children and a caregiver to be part of the traveling parties in Utah.
On the other end of the spectrum, for players who might wish to participate but aren't in the United States at the moment, Baird said that a recent order from the Department of Homeland Security designating athletes as essential personnel applies to the NWSL. That will allow international players to enter the country despite travel restrictions -- OL Reign, for instance, has struggled to get defender Celia Jimenez Delgado back from Spain.
The change could notably also affect German captain Dzsenifer Marozsan. The Salt Lake Tribune reported this spring that Marozsan was set to leave European club superpower Lyon for the Utah Royals, along with French national team goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi.
What will the setup look like in Utah?
Predmore said OL Reign would use charter flights on planes owned by Hansen and that he anticipated multiple teams using that option. But what about once everyone gets to Utah?
Expect to hear a lot about village life. Setting up a self-contained environment -- the village, as everyone involved keeps calling it -- appears central to the league's plans for hosting around 250 players and accompanying coaches and training staff.
Teams will stay in hotels or apartments in the area. Hansen said the league will take over one local hotel that he has equity ownership in for the duration of the tournament. Each team in the hotel will have its own floor, with minimal contact with outside parties (such as housekeeping staff). Other teams will set up in apartments connected to the Real Salt Lake training academy and another in a complex across the street from one of the stadiums.
Baird joked about having plenty of toothpaste through a sponsorship with Procter & Gamble (a Bundesliga manager was barred from coaching his team's first game back when he broke quarantine to obtain toothpaste). But she stopped short of saying players and staff would be definitively restricted to the area created for them or spelling out possible sanctions.
"We have thought of all the incidences where a player might need some support that is external to the environment," Baird said. "So each team is going to have resources available to them to go get supplies. ... We want the environment not to feel like a restriction, we want it to feel like a welcoming village where they can focus on what they're there to do without worrying about other things."
Hansen equated the assistance to team-specific "concierges" and said he had "opened the checkbook" for any needs.
"We don't see this as a restrictive environment," Hansen said. "We think of it as a very, very energized environment when the players are there, not just hiding out from COVID."
What about testing?
The league released its medial protocols in conjunction with the tournament announcement.
Players will undergo PCR testing for COVID-19 before leaving for Utah and within 24 to 48 hours of games once there. The protocol says that facilities should close immediately if any player or staff member tests positive, and contact tracing should commence for anyone present in the facility within 48 hours of the positive test. In Utah, that would cover the entire team.
If a game took place within 48 hours before the positive test, the opposing team would also need to conduct contact tracing for its players and staff.
The plans then spell out contact tracing protocol for low- and high-risk exposure to someone who tested positive for COVID-19. High-risk contacts, assuming no symptoms develop, would still not be allowed to return to training for 14 days from the date of exposure.
"Just as in every other city in the country, with or without soccer, we know for certain that people will test positive for COVID," said Dr. Daryl Osbahr, a member of the league's medical task force. "So we knew that we would have to have strategies to build upon that."
Hansen said the tests are sourced from ARUP Laboratories and come from out of state.
"We have taken not one test away that would be available to Utahans," Hansen said.