Zions Bank Park, NWSL Challenge Cup, 5.27.20
(Utah Royals FC)

Thorns set to return to play in unique NWSL Challenge Cup: "I’m very excited"

Life on the east coast’s terms meant today’s news had a different course. Instead of breaking in real time on their Twitter timelines, most Portland Thorns FC fans woke up to the announcement: that the National Women’s Soccer League would be back soon; a 25-game tournament would begin in Utah on June 27; and a champion would eventually be crowned for a first of its kind NWSL Challenge Cup.

“I couldn’t be more pleased than to announce today that the NWSL is going to return to competition this summer ...,” the league’s commissioner, Lisa Baird, said on a mid-day conference call.

Amid a wave of new details, possibilities and, until all the information is available, questions, it’s easy to race past the obvious: Soccer will be back, and relatively soon. It’s neither the format we expected nor the stakes we’re used to, but there will be games – games played by the best collection of talent in the women’s soccer world. Exactly one month from now, the NWSL will be back in its fans’ homes and phones.

“I’m ready to go,” Thorns defender Emily Menges, a member of the NWSL Players Association’s executive committee, said via video conference this afternoon. “I’m very excited. I’m happy that something is happening and we’ll be able to play some soccer games this summer.”

Before hearing from a player, it was natural to withhold judgment on the league’s announcement. Baird’s statement lauded the partnership between players and owners, commercial partners and others to bring the Challenge Cup about, but they were still just her words. The players may have had a different point of view.

“From the very start it’s all been very focused around health and safety,” Menges explained. “That’s what it was going to take to make most people the most comfortable, anyway. Now that they hammered out most of that, 95 percent of the league seems to be onboard with it.”

Menges’ call came after the NWSL’s full unveil: a noon Pacific conference call featuring Baird, a member of the league’s medical task force, Dr. Daryl Osbahr, and the owner serving as de facto host for the tournament, Utah Royals FC’s Dell Loy Hansen. Over the course of 50 minutes, the trio addressed a myriad topics, from timelines to testing; broadcasts to opt-outs; parenting accommodations to restrictions on movements.

“It took us over two months to put together the plans ...,” Baird explained. “Early on, the state of Utah caught our eye because of how well the pandemic challenges were being handled by the state and the public health officials. When Dell Loy came in with the host-city bid, things took off pretty quickly.”

The formation of the 15-physician task force was one of the initial steps in the NWSL’s planning, Baird said, with Osbahr lauding the panel’s experience across a number sports. From Menges’ point of view, those priorities persisted throughout the process, allowing players to develop a high level of comfort with the proposal.

“This is really the most impressed I’ve ever been with this league, with all the steps they’ve taken,” she said, explaining that players’ concerns “around ramping us up from sitting on our couches for two months to playing a game in five weeks” had also been addressed.

“[The NWSL has] gone through every single possible situation, every precaution,” she said. “They’ve given all the players a chance to ask every single question that we have.”

That dialog resulted in the Challenge Cup, one that will start in earnest six days before the first game. Come June 21 – the same day clubs will finalize tournament rosters – teams will be allowed to report to Utah, where facilities in the Salt Lake suburbs of Herriman and Sandy will be occupied until shortly after the competition’s last game on July 26. The goal, according to Baird, is to create a “village atmosphere,” where accommodations can balance the necessary restrictions.

“We’ve taken over a complete Embassy Suites hotel that [Hansen has] an equity ownership in …,” Hansen explained, “and are creating a really remarkably robust area where teams can congregate for meals, recreation and still stay within their safety protocols.” Hansen also identified two other buildings – the apartment building on Real Salt Lake’s Academy complex as well as another nearby apartment building – that will house teams for the month.

“Anything they need,” Hansen said, “we just kinda opened the checkbook and said get whatever they need."

The composition of the teams was another major focus, with Menges’ “95 percent” estimate alluding to more of the day’s news: that players who decline to play in the Challenge Cup will still receive their 2020 salaries.

“We wanted it to be very clear that even the players who opt out of this can still get paid,” she said, “because they’re not opting out because they’re lazy. They’re opting out because this could be a health and safety issue for them, personally. They shouldn’t get penalized for that. There will be players who don’t want to play for whatever personal reasons, but again, it’s based on individual basis, and they will still get paid.”

Some of the tournament details are still unknown. For example, although the competition will see eight of the league’s nine team advance past an initial round, we don’t know the schedule. We don’t how many groups there will be in that initial round. We don’t know how often or when teams will play each other. All we know is the start, the end, the inventory and, in its broadest sense, the idea: get the league together; give every team a minimum number of games; then go into a tournament.

It’s more than we could have expected a month ago, when we had nothing to base expectations on. And while times like these demand vigilance, Menges’ words provide some context to that caution. The NWSL will be back soon, and by all indications, a large swath of the players are onboard with the approach.