Saturday’s Portland Thorns Game Is Set to Kick Off the Return of Pro Sports in the US

Tobin Heath has opted out of the Challenge Cup, and the Orlando Pride will not attend after multiple players test positive for COVID-19.

By Margaret Seiler June 23, 2020

Marissa Everett (from left), Anika Rodriguez, Adrianna Franch, Morgan Weaver, Bella Bixby, Christine Sinclair, Emily Menges, and Katherine Reynolds are on the Portland Thorns roster for the Challenge Cup, which begins Saturday in Utah.

The first team sport major league to return to play in the US is the National Women’s Soccer League, in a bubble tournament that finds athletes and staff quarantined together in Utah. Two-time NWSL champs the Portland Thorns are scheduled to open the Challenge Cup against nemesis the North Carolina Courage at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, June 27. The game will air nationally on CBS (KOIN-6 in Portland). It is a rehash of the 2018 NWSL final, which the Thorns lost, as well as the 2017 final, which they won.

With the COVID-19 pandemic having canceled the preseason and delayed the start of the year’s action, the tournament could offer the professional debut for several players on the Thorns’ Challenge Cup roster, released this morning. The team took the top two picks in January’s college draft, Sophia Smith and Morgan Weaver, and has signed a third-round draft pick, Meaghan Nally, to a short-term contract for the tournament. Also signed to short-term contracts are Autumn Smithers and Anika Rodriguez, both of whom had declared for the college draft but were not selected at the time. 

National team star Tobin Heath, in her eighth season with Portland, has chosen not to play in the Challenge Cup, an option open to every player, with no financial repercussions. “Although I want to be on the field with my teammates doing what I love, because of the uncertainty and risks created by COVID-19, I have chosen not to participate in the NWSL Challenge Cup,” Heath said in team news release June 23. “I can’t even express how much I am looking forward to my next game in Providence Park.”

The Thorns roster is without any Australian players for the first time since the NWSL’s inaugural season in 2013, as Caitlin Foord, Hayley Raso, and Ellie Carpenter have all headed to play in Europe, among other changes. So fans won’t be hearing any chants of “Raso, Raso, Raso, oi, oi, oi”—but there will be no fans in the stands, anyway, as the games are being played without spectators.

The NWSL’s nine teams had been scheduled to each play four games to determine seeding for the top eight, who would proceed to knockout rounds beginning July 17, with the final on July 26. But the initial plan has been derailed by positive coronavirus tests for six players and four staff members with the Orlando Pride, reportedly related to some bar-going among younger roster members.

The revised schedule has Portland playing the Chicago Red Stars at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, July 1; the Washington Spirit at 7 p.m. Sunday, July 5; and the OL Reign at 9:30 a.m. Monday, July 13. The opener and final will air on CBS, and all games will be shown on subscription service CBS All Access (also home to Jordan Peele’s Twilight Zone reboot and Star Trek’s Discovery and Picard series, for those looking to make the most out of the $5.99 monthly fee).

Aside from the Challenge Cup, no other games are yet scheduled for the NWSL in 2020. Thorns season ticket holders were given what has become a familiar set of options: request a refund or apply the credit to next year. If there are Thorns home games later in the season, those who have rolled over their credit to next year will have first crack at buying them.

To support a kinder, gentler return to play and assuage some injury concerns with the shortened training period, for the Challenge Cup NWSL teams can have 28 players on their rosters instead of the usual 26, and they’ll be allowed five subs per game instead of three.

The next team sport major league to return to play is scheduled to be Major League Soccer*, opening its MLS is Back Tournament on July 8 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports, part of Orlando’s Disney World empire, which is also set to host the resumption of the NBA season starting July 31. Another bubble tournament with teams quarantined together, MLS is Back will follow a cup-style format with group play followed by knockout rounds. In a rather lo-fi draw held June 11, with team names hidden in hand-Sharpied plastic balls, the Portland Timbers drew Group F, along with Los Angeles FC, the LA Galaxy, and the Houston Dynamo (the new team of longtime Timber Zarek Valentin, who was claimed by new team Nashville SC in last fall’s expansion draft but then traded to Houston).

With 26 teams, the MLS is Back Tournament will see a fast and furious 54 matches in 26 days, with 16 teams advancing to the knockout stage, beginning July 25, with a final on August 11. Like the NWSL, MLS is allowing expanded rosters and more substitutes.The group-stage games will count as part of the MLS 2020 regular season, which was just two games in when the league suspended play on March 19 due to COVID-19. It’s unclear whether the Orlando Pride’s positive tests will alter plans for these Orlando-based tournaments.

*Some media outlets have reported the first US team sport major league to return to play in the pandemic is Major League Soccer or even the NBA. We’re not sure if these reporters, headline writers, editors, or content creators don’t understand the space-time continuum or are iffy on the definition of one or more of the words major, league, team, sport, first, or return. If this raises concerns for you, remember the Derek Zoolander Center for Children Who Can’t Read Good is fictional, but there are many real organizations promoting literacy that could use your support.