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URFC Historical Moments, #5: Utah hosts 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup

Utah hosts 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup during global pandemic

Photo: Lucas Muller | RSL Soapbox

June of 2020 was a scary time – COVID-19 was still new and unknown. The deadly virus had put a stop to all professional sports in the US. The NBA had it’s season stopped shortly before the playoffs, MLS just play just a few games, and the NWSL had just started preseason before the country went into lockdown.

Several leagues were rumored to be spinning up tournaments in order to have games in a controlled environment. The NBA and MLS both played in Orlando, with the NBA concluding their season then conducting the playoffs. Major League Soccer played the creatively named MLS Is Back Tournament. Before either of these leagues returned to action, the National Women’s Soccer League started the 2020 Challenge Cup.

The Challenge Cup was largely played at the Zion’s Bank Stadium and RSL Academy in Herriman, Utah. The facility, owned the Utah Soccer Holdings, is where Real Salt Lake, Real Monarchs, and (occasionally) the Utah Royals train. Zion’s Bank Stadium is home to the Real Monarchs, but the whole facility was designed to host teams and tournaments. Owner Dell Loy Hansen, prior to his racist and sexist comments becoming public, was seen as a bit of a savior of the league, both when he stepped in in late 2017 as the Boston Breakers and FC Kansas City folded, and this past summer when the league needed a plan to play games. The team has reported he spent around $900,000.00 to host the tournament, though one source informed RSL Soapbox that number was closer to $700,000. No matter of the exact figure, Hansen put significant funds into hosting the tournament. And regardless of what later came to light with Hansen, it was a big statement from him and the Utah Royals. It spoke to the league’s desire to preserver and Hansen’s willingness to put money towards the league and his team.

Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah.
Lucas Muller | RSL Soapbox

As teams ramped up for their first games of the year, COVID testing became a regular requirement. Orlando Pride reported multiple tests. Then that number grew and they had to withdraw from the Challenge Cup. It felt as though the entire tournament was on the line. What would have happened if another team had to withdraw? The playoff format was for 8 teams; removing the Pride meant all 8 remaining teams would make the playoffs despite how they preformed in the preliminary rounds. As luck and safe COVID protocols would have it, no one else tested positive on the player or coaching side for the remainder of Challenge Cup.

The entire tournament proved to be a major success. The league brought in major sponsors like Budweiser and Secret. Player health was good. Regular testing of players and staff took place. The few media members who were in attendance were asked about their health and given a temperature check and were kept separate from players. There was a playground and the sun glare only lasted for about 30 minutes, but both spawned comical Twitter accounts. As someone who was present for the vast majority of games in person, safety protocols were taken very seriously. Masks and good social distancing were practice and the NWSL were able to be the first professional sports league to return to play in the United States.

For the Utah Royals, the tournament started out dramatically with a 3-3 comeback draw against the Houston Dynamo. The Royals had been down but roared back to snatch a result from the Dash, Canadian international Diana Matheson scored a goal after not playing for the team since 2018 and rookie Tziarra King scoring on her debut. Vero Boquete scored her first home goal on Utah soil. Kelley O’Hara returned to play later in the tourament, which felt significant with Becky Sauerbrunn having left in the offseason for Portland and Christen Press not participating. The Royals would win their next game over Sky Blue, then fell 0-1 against the Red Stars. For their first game in the knockoff round, they fell to the Houston Dash on penalties.

It was a decent tournament for the Royals, but with some key players out (Press and Scott for example), it felt like an acceptable result even if they exited the tournament at the first possible chance. Harrington was a new coach and they were figuring things out, building the team. It would later prove that the struggles on the field may have been made worse from bigger issues off the field.

The Houston Dash would go on to win the Challenge Cup. They were very much the underdogs. Everyone expected the North Carolina Courage to win it all, but they shockingly fell to the Thorns in the first game of the knockout round. The final was an exciting event. The Dash were taking on a very strong Chicago Red Stars team. Even with nearly no people in the stands at Rio Tinto Stadium, Houston’s win was well celebrated and it was a big event for a 2020 championship game.

The success of the Challenge Cup was an event that pointed to the success and stabilization of the league within American sports. Having partnered with CBS, viewership for the NWSL was massive. Even with a lackluster performance from the Royals, it felt like their place within that growing league was secure. Despite the loss of the Royals, the Challenge Cup will happen again and that would not have been possible without everything the staff in Utah did to make the event such a success.

Houston Dash raise the Challenge Cup
Lucas Muller | RSL Soapbox