NWSL Challenge Cup: 20 things to know

The NWSL Challenge Cup kicks off with two games on Saturday, making the NWSL the first major U.S. pro league to return to play. The opener will mark the first game on CBS -- and first U.S. women's pro league game to air live on a national broadcast network.

Here's everything you need to know about the 23-game tournament ...

Format
1. Group Stage. Each team will play four games in the preliminary round to determine seeding based on a single table.

2. Knockout Phase. All eight teams will advance to the quarterfinals, where the tournament will enter the knockout phase with three rounds consisting of single games.

Venues
3. Zions Bank Stadium. All games through the quarterfinals will be played at 5,000-seat Zions Bank Stadium, the artificial turf field at the Zions Bank Training Center, the $78 million facility that serves as the home of the RSL academy and residency program in Herriman and is the home of the USL Championship's Real Monarchs.

4. Rio Tinto Stadium. The semifinals and final will be played in Sandy, at Rio Tinto Stadium, home of Real Salt Lake and the Utah Royals. No spectators will be allowed at any of the 23 games.

Teams
5. No Pride. Eight of nine NWSL teams are in Utah for the Challenge Cup. Orlando pulled out on Monday after six players and four staff members from the Pride initially tested positive for the coronavirus.

On Thursday, results for the second round of COVID-19 testing showed inconsistencies from the previous tests, so a third round of testing has been ordered. No matter the outcome, the Pride won't be playing in Utah.

6. The heavy favorite. The North Carolina Courage won the last two regular-season and postseason championships, and it will be the heavy favorite in Utah.

It returns 2019 U.S. World Cup stars Crystal Dunn, Samantha Mewis and Abby Dahlkemper, plus two other members of the USA's 2020 SheBelieves Cup championship team, Jessica McDonald and Lynn Williams. Throw in Brazilian Debinha and Abby Erceg of New Zealand, and the Courage remains formidable.

Says Coach Paul Riley, "We've got depth, we've got speed, we've got ability, we've got talent. They're very mission-driven and I think this is obviously another challenge for them."

7. Contenders. The Courage beat the Chicago Red Stars, 4-0, in the 2019 final after defeating the Portland Thorns, 3-0, in 2018. Both teams will be contenders in Utah though they are short-handed.

8. Rest of the field. OL Reign joined the Courage, Chicago and Portland in the 2019 playoffs. Washington, Utah, Houston and Sky Blue FC all failed to make the postseason for the second year in a row.

Players
9. Who's there. Saturday's twinbill offers a glimpse of some of the U.S. women's national team stars who will be on display in Utah: the Courage (Dahlkemper, Dunn and Mewis) vs. Thorns (new signing Becky Sauerbrunn and Lindsey Horan) and the Red Stars (Julie Ertz and Alyssa Naeher) vs. Washington (Rose Lavelle).

10. Who's not there. Nine members of the 2019 U.S. Women's World Cup championship aren't playing in the tournament, including Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign), Tobin Heath (Portland) and Christen Press (Utah), who all have decided not to play.

11. Injuries. 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 lost defender Caprice Dydasco with a knee injury.

The official injury report for Saturday's openers includes a long list of players who are in Utah but won't be available. They include three 2019 world champions: Tierna Davidson (Chicago), Adrianna Franch (Portland) and McDonald. Also out: Portland's Sophia Smith, taken with the No. 1 pick in 2020 College Draft.

12. Game management. Without a traditional preseason featuring four or five scrimmages against outside opposition, teams will use the first round to allow key players to build up minutes and get plenty of other players into games. (IFAB's five-player substitution rule will be in effect.) On Friday's media call, Chicago head coach Rory Dames said he already knows the starters and subs he'll use for the Red Stars' first three games.

13. Rosters. Teams were allowed to bring as many as 28 players to Utah. Most were filled out with college draft picks who in other years might not have stuck.



Television.
14. Schedule. Saturday's opener on CBS is the clash between NC Courage and Portland, the 2018 and 2019 champion against the 2017 winner. The championship game will also air on CBS. All games will air live on CBS All Access, the pay streaming service.

15. Announcers. Play-by-play announcer Jenn Hildreth and analyst Aly Wagner, the NWSL's No. 1 broadcast team in recent years, will call the Courage-Thorns opener on CBS and CBS All Access.

Play-by-play announcer Mike Watts and analyst Lori Lindsey will call games 2-22 on CBS All Access as well as the opener and final on Twitch. Josh Tolle and Jenn Cooper will broadcast all other matches on Twitch for viewers outside the U.S. and Canada. Marisa Pilla will serve as the tournament’s on-field reporter.

Covid-19.
16. Record positive tests. Cases have been rising in Utah with a record 676 positive test results reported on Friday -- the second time in less than a week the record was broken. Dr. Angela Dunn, the state’s epidemiologist, warned that state hospitals will be overwhelmed if residents don't wear masks. On Thursday, Governor Gary Herbert changed course and approved requests from county officials in Salt Lake and Summit to mandate the use of masks in businesses as of Saturday.

17. Protocols.  Players and staff traveling to the Challenge Cup were tested weekly before arriving in Utah and then again upon arrival. They will also be tested within 24-48 hours before each game.

Sponsors.
18. National. On Friday, the NWSL added Google as a national sponsor. The league previously announced P&G and Secret as presenting sponsors of the tournament. Budweiser will be presenting sponsor of the semifinals and final and the tournament MVP award. (Only Budweiser was an existing NWSL sponsor.)  It also announced a new multi-year partnership with Verizon.

19. Team. Chicago (Meijer) and Washington (CVS Health) both announced new primary jersey sponsors this week. In the case of the Red Stars, Meijer, a Midwest supercenter chain, is their first front jersey sponsor.

Anthem.
20. Taking a knee. Unlike MLS at its tournament that kicks off July 8 in Orlando, the NWSL announced on Friday that it will play the national anthem before Challenge Cup games. But it added: "Players are absolutely free to participate as they see fit."

Photo: Hannah Wagner/Bernie Koelsch/Washington Spirit

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