Corner flag, Challenge Cup, 6.2.20
(Utah Royals FC)

NWSL Challenge Cup 101 | Everything you need to know about the upcoming tournament

For over two months, sports were moved to the back burner. With their slow return, we’re seeing new twists – changes leagues like the NWSL have had to make in a COVID-19 world.

So if you see the phrase “NWSL Challenge Cup” in your feed and think, “I don’t know what that is,” don’t worry. You’re not alone. This is a new idea with a different format from a typical league season. It’s going to take time to get used to.

With that in mind, let’s run through the basics of the NWSL’s upcoming tournament. Here are your need to knows about professional women’s soccer upcoming return:

What is the NWSL Challenge Cup?

It’s how the NWSL is getting back to the field.

Shortly after the league’s preseason opened in early March, that preseason was officially halted. Training facilities were closed. Players sheltered at home. In the face of the novel coronavirus, the NWSL hit pause.

Now the league is unpaused, though things aren’t completely back to normal. Teams fully reopened their training centers in early June, and with new safety protocols in place, the league is ready to resume.

That resumption will begin June 27 in Utah. That’s where, over the course of a month, the league will hold a 23-game tournament, with a preliminary phase giving each team four matches before a knockout round. Hosted by Utah Royals FC, the Challenge Cup will be the league’s first competition since spring’s pause.

Games will take place at Zions Back Stadium in Herriman and Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy. The final is on July 26, meaning players and staff for the two teams who make the championship game will spend slightly over one month in Utah.

Who is involved?

In terms of teams, eight of the league's nine. When the Challenge Cup was announced, all nine NWSL teams were set to take part, but in the days before teams departed for Utah, the Orlando Pride had to withdraw. A series of positive tests for COVID-19 within the team made entering the tournament impractical.

In terms of players, the current world makes that more complicated. Protocols for testing as well as isolation in the NWSL’s suburban Utah “village” have won many players’ approval, but each player was allowed to opt out of the competition. Among the prominent names who will not be in Utah are United States internationals Carli Lloyd (Sky Blue FC), Christen Press (Utah Royals) Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign) and Thorns FC midfielder Tobin Heath.

The other key component here appears to be the partners. When announcing the tournament near the end of May, commissioner Lisa Baird also announced a presenting sponsor: Proctor & Gamble (P&G) Secret. During the same phone call, Baird revealed Verizon Wireless had also come on board. When Royals owner Dell Loy Hansen was asked about the financial impact of hosting, he lauded Baird’s efforts on the commercial side and said, through partnerships, the competition could possibly pay for itself.

The one partnership that won’t be involved is the fans’. As with other sports' returns, the NWSL will resume in empty stadiums. CBS will be broadcasting all games through at least one of its platforms (more, below), but there won’t be any crowds. Teams will be traveling with only essential staff, and attendance will be kept to bare minimums.

What, exactly, is the format?

Yeah, let’s get to that. It’s both straightforward and, in one respect, a little weird.

Over the course of two-plus weeks, each team will play games against four NWSL opponents, with the first games of this "Preliminary Round" taking place on June 27. Come July 13, the standings’ top eight teams will go into a knockout round, where it’s win or go home.

Just to be clear: Every team will advance to the second round. For each team, the first four games of the tournament about preparation and seeding. The first chance a team could be eliminated comes on July 17.

From there, the tournament’s second half will be a single-elimination tournament, taking the competition from quarterfinals to July 26’s final. The two teams standing at the end will have played seven games in around a month.

And what’s at stake?

For this event, only the Challenge Cup. It may be shaped like a huge bar of Secret deodorant. I don’t know. We haven’t seen it, yet.

As far as a regular season is concerned, this won’t impact one, if the league gets a season started. Baird may have said, when announcing her league’s tournament, she was open to the idea of more games at some point this year, but the games that happen in Utah? They'll only go toward the Challenge Cup.

Just tell me already: Who do the Thorns play?

This might be a little shocking, but somehow, someway, the Thorns were drawn against the North Carolina Courage in the tournament’s opener. Who could have possibly seen that coming?

Date/Time Home Away Venue/Result

Saturday, June 27
9:30 am PT

North Carolina Courage
Thorns FC

Zions Bank Stadium
CBS & CBS All Access

Wednesday, July 1
9:30 am PT


Thorns FC
Chicago Red Stars
Zions Bank Stadium
CBS All Access
Sunday, July 5
7:00 pm PT
Thorns FC
Washington Spirit
Zions Bank Stadium
CBS All Access

Monday, July 13
9:30 am PT

OL Reign
Thorns FC
Zions Bank Stadium
CBS All Access

Just in case my editor doesn’t use sarcasm font: The schedule was initially decided by random draw. Changes had to be made after Orlando withdrew, but that Courage-Thorns matchup? Random ... so they say. 

After that, Portland will face (in order) the Chicago Red Stars, Washington Spirit and OL Reign, with the final preliminary round game taking place Monday, June 13. And unless something goes drastically wrong, the Thorns should get at least one additional game in Challenge Cup’s knockout round.

And how do I watch?

New year, new broadcast partner. CBS has picked up the rights to the NWSL, with all games set to be available on its subscription service, CBS All Access. The cost is $6 per month.

Two games, however, will be on CBS’ main channel. The first could be that June 27 opener between the Courage and Thorns. The second will be July 26’s Challenge Cup finale.

Need more questions asked? Tweet @richardfarley or @ThornsFC so we can continue expanding this list ahead of June 27 and through July 26.