by Emily Duvall
On Sat., Jun. 27, the National Women’s Soccer League, also known as the NWSL, kicked off the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup, making it the first American team sport to return after the worldwide COVID-19 outbreak. Eight of the nine NWSL teams will compete in the tournament, including the North Carolina Courage, Washington Spirit, Sky Blue FC, OL Reign, Portland Thorns FC, Houston Dash, Utah Royals FC, and Chicago Red Stars. The Orlando Pride, the ninth team in the NWSL, was planning on competing in the Challenge Cup. However, they had to withdraw on Jun. 22, 2020, due to numerous positive COVID-19 cases among players and staff.
The Challenge Cup was intended to have a 25-game format, but once Orlando had to withdraw, the NWSL converted to a 23-game schedule for the tournament.
The North Carolina Courage is expected to perform well in the tournament, given their elite status as back-to-back NWSL Champions. However, they were eliminated early by the Portland Thorns in the quarterfinals.
Standings in the NWSL currently show the top three ranked teams (in order) to be the North Carolina Courage, Washington Spirit, and OL Reign. All of these teams have since been eliminated by other teams in the quarterfinals taking place the weekend of Jul. 17. The two match-ups for the semi-finals, taking place on Jul. 22, are the Portland Thorns taking on Houston Dash, and the Chicago Red Stars competing against Sky Blue FC.
The NWSL has not taken the field since October of 2019, making all teams anxious for the opportunity to compete again. The league had previously decided in April to postpone their season due to the coronavirus. Not long after the league came together about the postponement, the idea of the Challenge Cup was announced. The league planned to have the Challenge Cup replace the season, as the tournament follows a 23-game format, taking place over a one month time frame.
The Challenge Cup is taking place in Salt Lake City, Utah, with the owner of the Utah Royals FC, Dell Loy Hansen acting as its host. All of the matches will be conducted within the Zions Bank Stadium and the Rio Tinto Stadium.
Along with handling the complexities of COVID-19, all teams have gone above and beyond to show their support to the LGBTQ+ Community, Pride month, and the Black Lives Matter Movement. Each team played a Pride Match, where they wore a warm up jersey displaying the words “Be True” written in rainbow letters. Some teams like the OL Reign even made their jersey numbers rainbow. The OL Reign auctioned off their game-worn jerseys and donated all proceeds to the Tacoma Rainbow Center, a foundation that provides important resources to the LGBTQ+ community.
To show their support of the BLM movement, the North Carolina Courage and the Portland Thorns included a moment of silence before the tournament’s first match. Players also have been wearing Black Lives Matter warm up jerseys prior to game time, and each player during games has been wearing a black arm band with the BLM symbol and the words Black Lives Matter. Off the field, players and staff can be seen wearing masks that say BLM as well.
As this competition is taking place during the height of the coronavirus, there are incredibly strict rules in place for everyone involved. During the games themselves, there have been some rule changes to abide by CDC guidelines. For one, no games are allowed additional time. If a game ends in a draw after the 90 minute allotted time, the game will go straight to penalty kicks to decide the winner. Also, teams are allowed five substitutions instead of three, which was the norm for the NWSL prior to the pandemic.
Regarding the regulations off the field, all teams are quarantined during all times of the tournament and each player has their own room in the hotel in which they are staying. The players and staff are also tested for COVID-19 frequently and have constant check-ins for any irregular symptoms that could be of concern. Along with these accommodations, each player had the opportunity to opt-out of the tournament with no penalty regarding their salary, existing contracts, or other relations with the NWSL.
The semi-finals will be taking place Jul. 22 and the final will be played on Jul. 26. The Challenge Cup, excluding the final, is being broadcast in the United States by the streaming service CBS All Access. The final will be available to watch on live television on CBS. For international spectators, the game is streaming on Twitch.
(Sources: ESPN, New York Times, NWSL)