The Portland Thorns will play their first game of 2020 on Saturday, June 27, against reigning champions the North Carolina Courage. The match lands on the first game day of the Challenge Cup, which was announced last week and is set to make the National Women’s Soccer League the first major league in the US to return to play amid the novel coronavirus pandemic and its associated precautions. The games will be played in empty stadiums in and around Salt Lake City, Utah.
The matchups were announced Monday, June 1, in a live draw on CBS Sports Network. After stating the league and its athletes stand in solidarity with those demanding justice in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, NWSL Commissioner Lisa Baird spoke about the Challenge Cup, the league’s first competitive play since last October. Baird described the opportunity to present the tournament as “an advantage to having a smaller footprint,” with only nine teams currently in the league. She hoped the event would provide “a burst of excitement” in a time with so many sports on hiatus and the Olympic Games postponed to next year.
While a 2020 season hasn’t been called off, at the time the only games scheduled are those for the Challenge Cup. Each team will play four games to determine seeding for the knockout rounds (and which one of the nine teams will not even enter the knockout phase). The championship game will be held July 26 at Sandy’s Rio Tinto Stadium, home to MLS team Real Salt Lake and the NWSL’s Utah Royals. The opener—between the Chicago Red Stars and the Orlando Pride—and the final will air on CBS proper, with all games streaming live on the CBS All Access subscription service and re-airing on cable’s CBS Sports Network. The no-spectator games will be a marked change for Thorns fans, who are used to home games with an average attendance of more than 20,000 at Providence Park.
The NWSL’s announcement of the tournament lauded the two months of planning and negotiation with the league, the NWSL Players Association, and all teams’ medical staffs. Real estate magnate and Royals owner Dell Loy Hansen is arranging housing and training facilities to simulate an “NWSL Village” with controlled access for coronavirus precautions. The league and individual teams have stressed that participation is voluntary, and no player will lose their season’s salary or other benefits should they choose not to participate.
Longtime Thorns defender Emily Menges, a member of the NWSL Players Association Executive Board, praised the process last week in a Zoom press conference. “This is the most impressed I’ve ever been with this league, on all of the steps it’s taken. They’ve gone through every single possible situation and every caution. They’ve given all the players a chance to answer every single question that we have.”
The Thorns began full-team training on Saturday, May 30, marking the first time some players had met their new teammates in person.
“I felt like we worked very hard when we were at a distance as well, but now it’s just grinding and grinding until the tournament,” new Thorn Morgan Weaver said in comments recorded Saturday. “Everyone’s going at 100 percent, trying to get their work in, trying to make sure they’re fit and ready to go.”
Echoing Baird, Weaver said the Challenge Cup’s timing could be a benefit to the league, with added interest from a sports-starved audience. “Hopefully a lot of people start watching, really getting involved in women’s sports and women’s soccer,” said Weaver, whom the Thorns claimed with the no. 2 pick in January’s NWSL College Draft.
As the Thorns prepare to head for Utah, their regional rivals the OL Reign (once known as the Seattle Reign, then simply Reign FC when the team started using Tacoma’s Cheney Stadium as its home field, and now OL Reign to reflect its new majority owner, also the parent company of France’s Olympique Lyonnaise teams) have decamped to Missoula, Montana, for preseason training. (The Montana Volunteers, a Timbers-Thorns supporters group in the Treasure State, will adamantly not care.) Group training was not feasible under coronavirus restrictions in Washington state, OL Reign CEO Bill Predmore said in a news release May 31, and while the team could have trained in Utah, “the unique combination of elements will provide the best and safest possible experience for our players and staff.”
The Thorns will play their second game on short rest just four days later, against the Orlando Pride, now with former Thorn Emily Sonnett, who was traded to the Pride in January. [Editor’s note: News broke June 22 that the Orlando Pride would be withdrawing from the tournament due to positive test results for the novel coronavirus in multiple players and staff.]
NWSL Challenge Cup First Rounds
Saturday, June 27
Chicago Red Stars vs. Orlando Pride
North Carolina Courage vs. Portland Thorns
Tuesday, June 30
Washington Spirit vs. Utah Royals
Sky Blue FC (New Jersey) vs. OL Reign (Seattle-Tacoma)
Wednesday, July 1
Houston Dash vs. North Carolina Courage
Portland Thorns vs. Orlando Pride
Saturday, July 4
Chicago Red Stars vs. Utah Royals
Washington Spirit vs. OL Reign
Sunday, July 5
North Carolina Courage vs. Orlando Pride
Houston Dash vs. Sky Blue FC
Wednesday, July 8
Washington Spirit vs. Portland Thorns
Utah Royals vs. OL Reign
Thursday, July 9
Orlando Pride vs. Sky Blue FC
Chicago Red Stars vs. Houston Dash
Sunday, July 12
Utah Royals FC vs. North Carolina Courage
Portland Thorns vs. OL Reign
Monday, July 13
Chicago Red Stars vs. Sky Blue FC
Washington Spirit vs. Houston Dash
For updates, including times and broadcast details, keep an eye on the NWSL website.