NWSL to return on June 27 with monthlong tournament

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The National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) will return on June 27 with a 25-game tournament near Salt Lake City, the league announced on Wednesday.

The start of the NWSL's eighth season has been on hold since the coronavirus pandemic effectively shut down professional sports in the United States in March. As it stands, the NWSL would be the first U.S. league in a team sport to resume play since that shutdown.

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"The United States Women's National Team Players Association's (USWNTPA) top priority is player health and safety -- both physical and mental," a USWNTPA statement read.

"Consistent with that value, the USWNTPA and the USSF (United States Soccer Federation) have agreed that each WNT (Women's National Team) Player may choose for herself whether to participate in the NWSL 2020 Challenge Cup, and the USWNTPA and the USSF will provide support to each Player in whatever decision she makes.

"The USWNTPA will continue to work with the USSF, the NWSL, and the NWSLPA to minimize the risk of injury and exposure to COVID-19 for those Players participating in the tournament."

The new tournament, which the league is calling the NWSL Challenge Cup, will involve all nine of the league's teams. Each team will play four games in a preliminary round, with the top eight finishers advancing to a knockout round. The final will be played on July 26.

Games will be played at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah, and Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah. Rio Tinto Stadium is home to the NWSL's Utah Royals, as well as the MLS' Real Salt Lake.

Fans will not be allowed at any of the games.

"As our country begins to safely reopen and adjust to our collective new reality, and with the enthusiastic support of our players, owners, as well as our new and current commercial partners, the NWSL is thrilled to bring professional soccer back to the United States," NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird said in a statement.

The NWSL did not clarify whether the tournament would take the place of the 2020 season or serve as prelude to a modified regular season.

Among other questions unanswered is the participation of members of the United States women's national team. One source close to the national team players confirmed to ESPN multiple reports that there is a lack of unanimity among the players about participating.

Possible concerns, especially with the rescheduled Olympics in 2021, include playing a large number of games in a relatively short time after having little access to training for most of the past three months. Some of the games also would be on artificial turf.

"U.S. Soccer is supportive of the NWSL's decision to bring professional women's soccer back to the field," the federation said in a statement. "Throughout the collaborative planning process, U.S. Soccer has worked closely with the NWSL and the USWNT Players Association to focus on the health and safety of the players, both regarding COVID-19 and the physical aspects of the players returning to a preseason and tournament competition, and ensure that each player would have the option of participating in the event."

U.S. Soccer pays the NWSL salaries of national team players. A source connected with U.S. Soccer told ESPN on Wednesday that those players continue to be paid during the pandemic stoppage and nothing would change on that front, regardless of participation in the NWSL Challenge Cup.

The union representing the United States women's national team did not immediately respond to a request for comment from ESPN.

The NWSL said Utah Royals and Real Salt Lake owner Dell Loy Hansen would provide an "NWSL Village" for all teams and be responsible for housing and training needs, although it provided no specifics on procedures such as whether players and staff would be restricted solely to those spaces during the monthlong event.

The NWSL said Baird and Hansen met with Utah Governor Gary Herbert and other state and local officials while planning the tournament.

"Utah is home to strong health care systems and dedicated medical professionals -- and public health and safety are always a top priority for our communities," Herbert said in a statement. "Because of those factors, I believe our state will be a great location for the National Women's Soccer League to host its competition in 2020."

Testing protocols state that players will undergo testing for coronavirus before traveling to Utah and within 24-48 hours of games.

The protocols also lay out plans for quarantining of anyone who tests positive and contact tracing. Those deemed to have high-risk exposure to anyone who tests positive would be prohibited from training for 14 days. Interactions in the high-risk category include shared equipment or direct physical contact with the individual, contact of more than 10 minutes within 6 feet -- including meeting rooms, weight rooms and locker rooms, and living in the same housing unit.

Those deemed to have low-risk contact with anyone who tests positive would also be quarantined but could return to training if they test negative, show no symptoms and their temperature remains normal.

Germany's Bundesliga became the first major professional league in a team sport to return to competition on May 16. The Frauen-Bundesliga, the top women's professional league in Germany, will also resume its regular schedule this weekend without fans.