SANDY (AP) – 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 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.
The league’s biggest draw, World Cup star Megan Rapinoe, is under contract with Reign FC. The league gave no indication of whether she or other national team players would participate.
The U.S. Women’s National Team Players Association confirmed in a statement that players could opt out of the tournament. The union said it “will provide support to each player in whatever decision she makes.”
U.S. Soccer is supportive of the tournament.
“Throughout the collaborative planning process, U.S. Soccer has worked closely with the NWSL and the USWNT Players Association to focus on the health and safety of the players, both regarding COVID-19 and the physical aspects of the players returning to a preseason and tournament competition, and ensure that each player would have the option of participating in the event,” the federation said in a statement.
The league was supposed to begin its 2020 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.
“As the plans for the tournament unfolded, it was our priority as the (players’ association) to protect our players, and we feel that NWSL shares those values,” union leaders Yael Averbuch West and Brooke Elby said in a statement.
America’s major men’s soccer league, MLS, has resumed limited training in the hopes of restarting this summer. The German Bundesliga resumed play in empty stadiums earlier 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.
The NWSL used the rollout of the plans for its summertime tournament to also announce a new sponsorship deal with Verizon.
AP Sports Writer Anne M. Peterson contributed to this report.