PORTLAND, Ore. — Pro soccer returns to the U.S. next month when the National Women's Soccer League starts a 25-game tournament in a pair of stadiums in Utah that will be kept clear of fans to protect players from the coronavirus.
Players from the league's nine teams will train and live at two Salt Lake City-area hotels, the league announced Wednesday. All players will be tested for COVID-19 before leaving for Utah, and then will be regularly screened during their monthlong stay.
No fans will be allowed into the Zions Bank or Rio Tinto stadiums, two suburban Salt Lake City venues that will host the action.
The tournament begins June 27, with games to be televised and streamed by CBS and its online and broadcast affiliates. It's a boon for a league that was looking for a new TV partner in the wake of the U.S. women's victory in the World Cup last year and now finds itself on the front end of American leagues returning and offering live sports amid the coronavirus pandemic.
League Commissioner Lisa Baird said player safety was a priority.
“We’ve been guided, not necessarily by being first, but by being safe,” Baird said. “Our mantra all the way through has been, ‘Is our medical protocol complete enough and thorough enough?'"
Not all players may be on board. The U.S. Women's National Team Players Association confirmed players can opt out of the tournament and said it “will provide support to each player in whatever decision she makes."
U.S. Soccer also said participation is optional. It was not immediately known whether any players from the national team would opt out.
Rosters for the league’s nine teams will be announced on June 21, Baird said.
Utah Royals forward Amy Rodriguez said players have been apprised of the possible risks.
“I am well aware that there are a lot of concerns in this," she said. “And please, do not get me wrong when I say that I am excited for the tournament, in a sense of being naive or maybe not having those concerns. I definitely do think that there are a lot of things that have to be in place for this to be a successful, safe, healthy tournament for our nine NWSL teams and staff. I think that our players' association, our board of directors, the medical staff, everyone has really taken all those things into consideration.”
The league was supposed to begin the season on April 18. The NWSL players' union agreed to the terms of the return, which will include four games of pool play for each team, followed by an eight-team, single-elimination tournament that will conclude July 26.
The union secured guaranteed contracts for this year and insurance for all players, whether they choose to play or not. The union also made sure players with children were accommodated. Mothers will be allowed to bring their children and a caregiver to Utah.
Emily Menges, who plays for the Portland Thorns, said she believes the league has done a good job of addressing player concerns.
“This is really the most impressed I’ve ever been with this league, on all of the steps that they’ve taken. They’ve gone through every single possible situation and every caution," she said. “They’ve given all the players a chance to answer every single question that we have.”
The major men's soccer league in the U.S. and Canada, MLS, has resumed limited training in the hopes of restarting this summer. The German Bundesliga resumed play in empty stadiums this month after a two-month hiatus; other major leagues in Europe, including the Premier League, are trying to figure out the logistics of getting back to play.
Baird said she believes the NWSL's size gave it an advantage over other leagues and sports: “I think the secret is we’ve been small and nimble and agile."
The NWSL's testing guidelines for the tournament include individual testing upon arrival in Utah and testing within 24 to 48 hours of each game. The league's insurer will cover the testing.
The league put together a task force of 15 physicians to develop its return to play protocol. Earlier this week, teams were allowed to start small group training.
It was unclear whether additional NWSL games would be scheduled beyond the tournament. Sky Blue general manager Alyse LaHue said in a letter to supporters Wednesday that play in the fall has not been ruled out.
AP Sports Writer Anne M. Peterson contributed to this report.