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NWSL hopes to start 2020 competition in Utah

Various reports confirm the NWSL’s plan for a return-to-play tournament in the Salt Lake City area.

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Cindy Lara | RSL Soapbox

Per various reports, including The Athletic, The Washington Post, Caitlin Murray on Yahoo Sports, and The Salt Lake Tribune, competition for 2020 for the NWSL will begin with a return-to-play tournament in Utah, leading to a regular season in teams’ home markets later this summer or fall. The summer tournament, to be named the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup, would begin June 29th with group play and conclude July 28th with the final.

The competition is similar to the World Cup, with group stage games where each team plays four games. After the conclusion of group play, only the last-place team would be eliminated. The remaining eight teams advance to play in a knockout-style tournament to begin Saturday, July 19.

Source: Meg Linehan, The Athletic

Proposed venues would have Zions Bank Stadium for preseason, the group stage, and quarterfinals, while Rio Tinto Stadium would host the semifinals and final. Training would occur at Zion Banks Real Academy fields and America First Field.

Why now? Why Utah?

As much as there is anticipation for the 2020 season to get underway, there’s also concern that it is too soon to hold any sort of competition, especially as the United States grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. has reached 1.6 million cases and nearly 100,000 deaths (John Hopkins University) at the time of writing. However, by returning on June 29, the NWSL would be one of the first professional sports leagues to return to play after the cancellation and postponement of sports across the world due to the outbreak, thereby creating opportunities for fans to tune in and sponsorships.

Utah appears to be the safest location because it has the lowest number of cases in comparison to other NWSL cities, according to The Athletic. It is one of the few states with less than 100 deaths. State officials have approved it, and so has the league’s medical task force as well as NWSL owners. Additionally, Dell Loy Hansen will cover the expenses of the tournament because the league would be using his facilities.

Players still to approve

Even though this plan is set on paper and leaked to the media, the ones still to approve are the NWSL’s players as well as USWNT players. Though many are eager for sports to return, the ones mostly at risk, should the league return in June, are the players themselves. Players can opt out if they do not feel comfortable, and Caitlin Murray reports that several USWNT veterans would decline to participate.

The plan is for the tournament in Utah to take place in a controlled environment, where players are tested regularly and with social distancing protocols. According to The Athletic’s report, upon arrival, players and staff would be tested for COVID-19 and the presence of antibodies associated with past infection. Testing will be conducted weekly and before each game. Referees and broadcast partners and other staff will also be tested.

Also, according to The Athletic’s report, over half of all NWSL players (55.9%) were likely to play in Utah, should there be “adequate safety protocols.” There are, however, other concerns for players, including paychecks, benefits, and injuries with such a condensed schedule.

Is the tournament worth it?

There’s obviously much at stake with this tournament. The safety of everyone during a pandemic is what has to be considered, and it’s likely why the tournament has not been officially announced by the league yet. There’s also concern that missing out an entire season will impact some NWSL teams more than others, especially players.

There’s also the question of whether fans would be allowed to attend, few or if any. Common sense would say no, but The Washington Post reports states that “few” could be allowed.

A tournament is risky, for sure. With the virus, there’s much that cannot be controlled, regardless of protocols. At the same time, it can be understood that players want to play while others will want to opt-out, and the league wants to have some form of competition in 2020.

To learn more, check out the reports themselves: