Challenge Cup: NWSL Announces Summer Tournament

2020 NWSL Challenge Cup logo

An official statement from the NWSL announced the 2020 Challenge Cup, marking the first American sport to return to play.

The NWSL announced Wednesday morning they will return to play with the 2020 Challenge Cup presented by P&G and Secret. The tournament will run from June 27 through July 26 in Utah.

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All nine clubs will participate in the 25 game tournament. The Utah Royals FC and Real Monarchs will host at their home Rio Tinto and Zions Bank Stadiums. This includes all housing and training with a sort of “NWSL Village” to control exposure.

Each team will play four games to determine seeding. The top eight teams will then advance to the quarterfinals for single elimination. The league has not released a schedule yet.

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CBS will air the opening and final games of the tournament. They will then broadcast all other games on CBS All Access. International viewers can tune in to all games on Twitch.  

CBS and Twitch come after a three-year television and streaming deal reported by Equalizer Soccer.

The agreement was originally slated for 87 televised games and 24 streamed this season. Including all 108 regular-season games, playoffs, and championship for international audiences. 

The tournament announcement also notes a brand new multi-year partnership with Verizon. Additionally, the semifinal, final, and MVP Award will be presented by Budweiser.

U.S. Soccer, the NWSLPA, and Utah Governor Gary Herbert have publicly shown support for the tournament.

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“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. 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,” says Gary Herbert in the statement.

About the idea of returning, Chicago Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler told the Chicago Sun-Times she sees an opportunity. “We’re smaller. We’re more nimble. We only have nine teams that we have to plan around. So our goal is to be the first ones playing again. It’s easy for us to pull off because we aren’t used to 40,000-plus crowds.”

However, there are still concerns with the NWSL being the first American sport to return to play. The U.S. still faces one of the highest tallies of COVID-19 cases and deaths worldwide.

Postponement of the original league

The NWSL officially postponed the league on March 13, just three days after Lisa Baird began her new role as Commissioner. The season was supposed to start on April 18.

“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,” Baird says in the tournament announcement.

Notable steps have been taken to minimize risk. The NWSL’s Medical Task Force has created testing protocols that teams will be required to follow. This consists of testing 48 hours prior to departure, upon arrival, and throughout their stay.

On May 25 the NWSL announced Phase Two for Small Group Training limiting practices to eight players plus regular testing. Phase Three begins on May 30 which allows for Full Team Training. 

But the question remains if the tournament and protocols will be worth it. Yahoo Sports recently counted a higher number of injuries for Bundesliga likely due to the quick jump to competitive play.

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Germany’s Bundesliga resumed their season on May 16. The first notable football league to do so since the start of the pandemic. Quite the opposite was the FA Women’s Super League & Women’s Championship Board. They announced on May 25 to end the 2019-20 season and championship.

“Supporting the welfare of the clubs and players will continue to be our primary concern throughout this process,” an FA statement said.

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“[This] also involved a robust and thorough examination of the logistical, operational and financial challenges that the game currently faces.”

FIFA acknowledges the increase risk of injury in this time. They will now allow a maximum of five substitutions.

“As football begins to consider resumption of competitions across the world following the COVID-19 pandemic, the International Football Association Board (The IFAB) has agreed to make a temporary amendment to the laws of the game based on a proposal received from FIFA seeking to protect player welfare.”

Even with a perfect plan, the players, coaches, and staff might choose not to participate. With teams located all over the U.S., there may be decisions to self-quarantine to avoid exposure to others and to themselves.

Sports Illustrated stated, “it’s safe to assume that Alex Morgan, who had a baby May 7, will not be playing.” Additionally, “one of her club teammates with the Orlando Pride, U.S. goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, has been outspoken about the tournament prior to it becoming official.”

The U.S. and world will be watching to see how the NWSL Challenge Cup is received. As the first American sport to return, it’s success or failure will be experienced alone. Regardless, it is no less exciting to see football returning as we look forward to living with and beyond the pandemic.

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