NWSL Challenge Cup’s biggest storylines as U.S. team sports return

    Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.

This was supposed to be the summer in which the National Women’s Soccer League built on the global success of last year’s World Cup. A chance to show off how eight years had nurtured a league that mass audiences could and hopefully would soon appreciate on its own merits.

But what might have been the next step for women’s soccer in this country is now more like a first step for sports in general in the United States, as the NWSL becomes the first league in a team sport to return to competition amidst the very much ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The 2020 NWSL season has, in all likelihood, morphed into the NWSL Challenge Cup, the monthlong tournament that will play out in the Salt Lake City area.

• U.S. stars Heath, Press back out of NWSL restart
• Orlando out of NWSL Cup after 10 positive tests
• How the NWSL plans to be the first U.S. team sport back

This is not a perfect arrangement. It wasn’t perfect before Tobin Heath, Christen Press and Megan Rapinoe opted out of the event over concerns about the pandemic, as all players had the right to do without penalty. It wasn’t perfect even before Orlando Pride withdrew en masse, the team unable to travel to Utah after 10 positive COVID-19 tests among players and staff.

But even without some stars on the field and without fans in the stands, this won’t be a summer without soccer. So after months of talk about how sports might return, let’s spend at least a little time looking at some of the stories that will shape this unique eighth season.

How does the Challenge Cup work?

It is probably worth starting with a quick refresher on exactly what we’re talking about. It helps that the format wasn’t all that complicated even before Orlando withdrew from the event.

There are now eight teams involved in the tournament, and every team is guaranteed to play at least five games. There aren’t specific groups in the preliminary phase, which begins June 27 and concludes July 13, but it works on the same basic premise as the group stage of any major tournament. With Orlando absent, all eight teams will advance to the knockout rounds. So the opening phase is now only about seeding and getting time on the field after the long layoff.

The league initially considered placing higher stakes on this phase of the tournament, with only four teams advancing and knockout play beginning with the semifinals, but settled on this as the wiser choice for players and teams coming out of three months of limited activity.

Teams may carry as many as 28 players. All players will be allowed to dress for games.

There will be no extra time played in any games in the tournament. Knockout games still tied at the end of 90 minutes will go directly to penalty kicks. As is the norm across the soccer world at the moment, teams will be able to make five substitutions during games (which can be made in no more than three stoppages). Yellow cards will be erased after the quarterfinals, but any player who picks up two yellow cards in the preceding games will be suspended for a game.

The quarterfinals will be played July 17 and 18, with the semifinals on July 22 and the final on July 26. The semifinals and final will be played at Rio Tinto Stadium, home of the Utah Royals and Real Salt Lake. All other games will be played on artificial turf at Zions Bank Stadium.

What hasn’t changed in the NWSL?

As you might have noticed, the world looks quite a bit different than it did three or four months ago, let alone when NWSL teams last took the field in real games in October.

One smidgen of familiarity amidst all of that change, at least when it comes to women’s soccer in this country, is that everyone is still chasing the North Carolina Courage.

Well past the plucky upstart that North Carolina coach Paul Riley still occasionally — and endearingly — tries to claim as an identity, the Courage are back-to-back NWSL champions and three-time reigning Shield winners as the regular-season champions. And at least on paper, they enter the Challenge Cup as strong as they were a season ago, when their goal difference was better than that of the other three playoff teams combined and they routed Chicago 4-0 in the final.

Midfield mainstay McCall Zerboni moved on to Sky Blue and Heather O’Reilly eased gracefully into retirement. But the Courage added Hailie Mace, the uberversatile No. 2 overall pick in the 2019 draft. The U.S. national team contingent of Abby Dahlkemper, Crystal Dunn, Jessica McDonald, Samantha Mewis and Lynn Williams are all on the Challenge Cup roster, along with Brazilian rising star Debinha, who was in the top 10 in goals and assists a season ago.

Rather than any sign of the standard slipping, the challenge remains finding a team to rise to it as the Courage seek to add to their collection of trophies.

Why is the Pacific Northwest still the center of attention?

Even as the Courage set the standard and Salt Lake City becomes the geographic hub for a summer, the Pacific Northwest remains central to the league’s identity.

The region has always been the league’s heartland, from the crowds, star power and wins in Portland to the success of Laura Harvey’s Reign in the early years and Vlatko Andonovski’s stopover en route to the U.S. women’s national team. The Pacific Northwest always matters.

Even without Heath and Rapinoe in the weeks ahead, it still does.

Reign FC is now OL Reign, the name a reflection of a potentially paradigm-shifting business model that saw French giant Olympique Lyonnais take a majority ownership stake. Previously among the models of independent ownership under Bill Predmore, who remains CEO, OL Reign is now a test case for the kind of European investment that has long been rumored from clubs like Barcelona and Manchester City. These days, that will also make it a test case for the effects of the coronavirus economy on such investment in women’s soccer.

Without Rapinoe, new coach Farid Benstiti must prove able to debut as smoothly as Andonovski did following Harvey. But befitting the new international ownership, bringing in new signings or loanees Alana Cook (PSG), Shirley Cruz (PSG), Adrienne Jordan (Birmingham City) and Yuka Momiki (NTV Beleza) makes for an intriguing start.

The offseason changes in Portland have nothing to do with the boardroom and everything to do with a restructuring on the field. The Thorns didn’t just tinker around the edges. They went for the renovation, trading U.S. national team defender Emily Sonnett among other moves in an effort to stock up on a youth movement led by No. 1 overall pick Sophia Smith. And with the demise of U.S. Soccer’s short-lived development academy program and college athletic departments facing coronavirus-related budget chasms, Smith isn’t just a talented young goal scorer. After leaving Stanford following just two seasons, she represents at least a toe in the water of an entirely different model of player development increasingly steered by NWSL clubs.

Yet even without Heath and after dispatching Australian rising star Ellie Carpenter to Lyon in recent transfer, the Thorns hardly tore things down to build from scratch. Christine Sinclair is on board for the tournament, and Portland also brought Becky Sauerbrunn home in a move that erases a weak spot. Win now and win later. That has always been Portland’s NWSL remit.

What is holding back the challengers?

Utah Royals appeared on the verge of showing off the league’s new system of allocation money when it was reported in April that the team was close to signing Germany’s Dzsenifer Marozsan and France’s Sarah Bouhaddi away from European giant Lyon.

But as Utah now welcomes the rest of the NWSL to its home turf for the Cup, that megadeal appears to have been scuttled or at least put on long-term hold. The imports certainly won’t be around this summer. And even worse for the immediate future, Utah won’t just be missing Sauerbrunn, traded to Portland, but also Press, who cited COVID-19 concerns in opting out.

Those personnel issues further underscore why North Carolina will be so difficult to dislodge. Every potential challenger has its own pressing issues. Some of those are pandemic-related — such as Press and Rapinoe electing not to participate in the Challenge Cup.

Some are injury related. With a fresh start for Mallory Pugh and a remarkable rebuilding job under general manager Alyse LaHue, Sky Blue looked fast-tracked for playoff contention — no small feat for a franchise so recently a dysfunctional mess. New additions Midge Purce and McCall Zerboni still make this an interesting team in the Challenge Cup. But without Carli Lloyd and Pugh due to injuries, the revival may continue at a more measured pace.

Other issues come from the natural ebb and flow of any league even in normal times. The closest challenger a season ago and still a model of management stability, Chicago nonetheless must replace two-time reigning MVP Sam Kerr, who signed with Chelsea. If offseason addition Kealia Ohai is a significant part of that answer, the rest of the roster remains loaded.

But that is still a big “if” when it comes to replacing someone like Kerr.

Washington still has Rose Lavelle, Andi Sullivan and first-round pick Ashley Sanchez among its many youthful assets. But the very act of trading Pugh — envisioned as a franchise centerpiece when signed out of high school — is proof of how difficult it is for a team to move from potential to the playoffs, let alone championships.

Like Sky Blue, and like Orlando before its withdrawal, Houston hopes to accelerate a rebuilding plan. And a knockout tournament may be more conducive to highlighting potential — all it takes to make an impression is one good day rather than season-long consistency.

If the question is who can topple North Carolina, it’s not a promising sign that most of the challengers have more questions of their own than answers.

How could the Challenge Cup reshape 2021?

Instead of mere months to prepare for his first major tournament as coach of the U.S. women’s national team, Andonovski now has another year in which to get ready.

That is good news for someone whose almost obsessive commitment to preparation and scouting helped make him such a success in the NWSL and earn his current position.

That’s all the more true now that Andonovski will actually have at least a month of soccer to evaluate. Whether or not the Olympic audition process is wide open, there is at least a chance for players to make their case for 2021.

Granted, all the same constrictions of an 18-player roster remain. Andonovski already had enough depth chart congestion to ensure some World Cup winners would miss the Olympics. And now instead of an arguably long-shot candidacy a couple of months after giving birth to her first child, Alex Morgan will presumably be something close to a roster lock. That is one less spot.

But for emerging players like defender Mace, the former No. 2 overall pick who now joins North Carolina after beginning her professional career abroad, or Washington defender Tegan McGrady, it’s one more year of development. Perhaps even two-time reigning Hermann Trophy winner Catarina Macario, who gets another year to sort out her citizenship status and will be a professional by next summer, has time to get in on the discussion through a college season, whatever shape that takes, or national team camps later in the year.

The Challenge Cup is also an opportunity for veterans like Chicago’s Morgan Brian and OL Reign’s Allie Long to show Andonovski they have more tournaments to play. Both were part of the World Cup winners last summer but did not participate in Olympic qualifying earlier this year. And it’s a chance for Chicago’s Casey Short, Washington’s Sullivan and North Carolina’s Williams — all part of qualifying after missing the World Cup — to further enhance their cases.

How will the league handle the coronavirus during the tournament?

In his role as part of the league’s medical task force, Dr. Daryl Osbahr said when the NWSL announced the Challenge Cup that positive tests for COVID-19 were inevitable. And indeed, the league announced the first such test last week, without naming the player. Osbahr also said he hoped the protocols in place could forestall an entire team needing to shut down.

That obviously didn’t happen in Orlando, a reminder of how challenging it is to play team sports amidst a pandemic.

The league has been transparent about its health protocols for the tournament. Any positive test, asymptomatic or otherwise, triggers a sequence that includes quarantining the player in question and conducting contact tracing and testing for the rest of the team.

Players who test positive but remain asymptomatic can return to the training facility for light training and team meetings after 10 days and full training after 14 days.

Players who test positive and also show symptoms will receive local medical evaluation and hospitalization as necessary. They are prohibited from any exercise for 14 days and can resume light exercise only after seven days without symptoms and after an array of tests, including an electrocardiogram and echocardiogram.

Individuals who are deemed to have high-risk contact with anyone who tests positive will also be quarantined and players will be prohibited from returning to practice for 14 days.

Whether or not any plan is sufficient for current circumstances is difficult to predict. Numerous European soccer leagues have restarted in recent weeks without widespread problems, including the women’s league in Germany where Wolfsburg just wrapped up a title. But in this country, even putting aside the Pride for a moment, entities from professional baseball teams to colleges have paused workouts or shuttered facilities in response to positive tests.

And as in Orlando, geography might not help. According to data from The New York Times, Salt Lake and neighboring Utah counties are among those areas in the state experiencing an increase in cases over the past two weeks. The cities of Herriman and Sandy, where all games will be played, are in the southern portion of Salt Lake County just north of Utah County.

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