The National Women's Soccer League is set to become the first US team sport league to return from the coronavirus pandemic, announcing plans Wednesday for a tournament starting June 27.
The nine-team circuit will stage the NWSL Challenge Cup at Utah's Zions Bank Stadium, home of the NWSL Utah Royals, with the semi-finals and final at Rio Tinto Stadium, home of Major League Soccer's Real Salt Lake.
The suburban Salt Lake City venues will host a 25-game tournament without spectators, each team playing four preliminary round games to determine seedings. Eight advance to the quarter-finals for a knockout event with a champion to be decided in a July 26 final.
"As our country begins to safely reopen and adjust to our collective new reality -- and with the enthusiastic support of our players, owners as well as our new and current commercial partners -- the NWSL is thrilled to bring professional soccer back to the United States," NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird said.
NBA, MLS, Major League Baseball and National Hockey League seasons have also been shut down by the deadly disease outbreak, but have not finalized comeback strategies. None are expected back before July.
National governing body US football backed the NWSL plan.
"US soccer is supportive of the NWSL's decision to bring professional women's soccer back to the field," it said in a statement, saying it worked with the league and players union to "focus on the health and safety of the players."
The NWSL and union unanimously backed the plan, which has all players living in an "NWSL Village" for housing, training and competition with testing for Covid-19 and isolation protocols.
An NWSL medical task force comprised of a team doctor from each club, has coordinated medical and testing protocols with Utah public health officials.
"We've been fortunate within the state that we've been less hit than other places have," Utah Royals coach Craig Harrington said. "We're really excited to ... put on games that hopefully the rest of the world will get some enjoyment from."
Every player, official and essential staff member will be tested 48 hours prior to departure for Utah and upon arrival and be subject to consistent testing, temperature readings and symptom review in Utah.
"We're hoping to provide a safe, comfortable environment for all the players," Royals captain Amy Rodriguez said.