Preview: NWSL returns to play without many of its big names

The NWSL will be the first major U.S. pro league to return to play when the NWSL Challenge Cup opens on Saturday in Utah.

There will be no fans in the stands at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman and Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy for the 30-day tournament. But viewers will be able to watch all the action on new national broadcast partner CBS, which will carry two games on its main network -- U.S. women's pro soccer's first coverage on national television -- and all games on pay-streaming service CBS All Access.

It might be the only chance for fans to catch the NWSL in 2020 as the league has announced no concrete plans to play more games later in the year. But many U.S. women's national team stars won't be available.

Nine members of the 2019 U.S. Women's World Cup championship are out:

-- Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign), Tobin Heath (Portland) and Christen Press (Utah) have decided not to play.

In a statement, Heath said she wanted to be with her Thorns teammates on the field doing what she loved but won't play "because of the uncertainty and risks created by COVID-19. (Participation of NWSL players isn't required).

Press' statement contained similar language to that of Heath's. She described her absence from the Royals, the tournament's home team, as "painful," but she also said it was due to "the uncertainty created by COVID-19."

Rapinoe has not spoken about her absence, which was first mentioned by new OL Reign coach Farid Benstiti in an interview with a newspaper in his native France when the Tacoma-based team opened camp in Montana. On Tuesday, Reign CEO Bill Predmore said, “Farid and I would love to have her with the club for the tournament, but we understand and respect her decision.”

-- The team in Utah the most affected by losses is Sky Blue FC, which will be without Carli Lloyd (knee) and Mallory Pugh (hip) due to injuries. The New Jersey club also has defender Caprice Dydasco on the injured list.

Despite the losses, Sky Blue FC head coach Freya Coombe hopes to build on the improvement her team made late in the 2019 season with such offseason acquisitions as McCall Zerboni and Midge Purce, who have both played on the national team in recent years.

“I am really happy with the team we have built at Sky Blue since the end of last season,” said Coombe. “We have blended a talented group of experienced senior players, new signings, and some young players wanting to showcase their talent in the league. They have responded well as a group through the adversity of the last few months and have shown great resilience and mental agility."

-- Alex Morgan, who recently gave birth to her first child, was not going to play, but her club, the Orlando Pride, had to withdraw on Tuesday due to an outbreak of coronavirus on the team. The Pride's players who will miss the tournament include three U.S. world champions: goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris and defenders Ali Krieger and Emily Sonnett.

Who will be there?

The two-time defending champion North Carolina Courage will be the heavy favorites with world champions Abby Dahlkemper, Crystal Dunn and Sam Mewis, all starters in the 2019 final against the Netherlands, as well as forward Jessica McDonald.

The Chicago Red Stars will be led by Julie Ertz and Alyssa Naeher, two other national team starters. Becky Sauerbrunn, who won her fourth NWSL Defender of the Year award in 2019, was traded from the Royals to Portland in the offseason, while Rose Lavelle, who played only 17 games in two seasons with Washington because of national team call-ups and injuries, will lead the Spirit.

NWSL owners approved new spending measures to allow teams to bring in foreign players on higher salaries, but few foreign players have joined the league in the aftermath of the shutdown due to the COVID-19 in the first week of preseason. French goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi and German playmaker Dzsenifer Marozsan, once linked to the Royals, ended up re-signing with French champion Lyon.

Orlando's absence will mean that there will be no Marta in Utah. But fellow Brazilian Debinha (NC Courage) and Canada world scoring leader Christine Sinclair (Portland) should play big roles in the success of their teams.

No European league has the depth on the field or support in the stands -- when fans are allowed to attend -- like the NWSL, but a select group of clubs continue to draw away NWSL talent. Australian stars Sam Kerr, Caitlin Foord, Steph Catley and Ellie Carpenter all have or are expected to sign with European teams.

NWSL teams were allowed to bring expanded rosters -- 28 players -- to Utah, and they will be playing with the pandemic-era five subs, mandated by IFAB, creating a lot of opportunities for young players who might not otherwise get them. In recent years, college draft picks have had a hard time making NWSL rosters. Most 2020 picks are in Utah, led by Sophia Smith, who gave up her senior season at Stanford to sign with the Portland Timbers.

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