The NWSL Challenge Cup will be opening with a headliner.
Just the fact that the league is returning in some facet in itself is a triumph, but among the highlights of the preliminary round schedule, which was drawn on Monday, is the North Carolina Courage vs. the Portland Thorns on the opening day of the tournament.
That will help kick off an 18-game preliminary stage, after which eight of the nine teams will advance to a single-elimination knockout bracket to crown the champion after a month in Utah.
Hosted by Utah Royals FC at Rio Tinto Stadium and Zions Bank Stadium, NWSL is looking to become the first major pro sports league back in action in the United States after the coronavirus pandemic-induced shutdown. New commissioner Lisa Baird has stated that being first wasn't an initial goal, but with just nine teams and what it feels to be proper safety protocols in place, the league will be ready to go on June 27.
That's when the Chicago Red Stars will face the Orlando Pride and the Courage and Thorns renew acquaintances to kick things off. The Courage and Thorns faced off in the 2017 and 2018 finals, have combined to win the last four NWSL Shields (best regular season record) and have long been considered the class of the league.
With each team playing four matches in the preliminary stage, there's sure to be imbalances and oddities in the schedule, and that's how the draw, which was carried live online and via streaming service by new media partner CBS, unfolded.
The Pride have the daunting task of facing the Red Stars, Thorns and Courage in addition to a much-improved Sky Blue FC. The Thorns, in addition to facing the Courage, will also battle rebranded Cascadia foe OL Reign in their second game.
Here is the schedule in full:
There are betting odds for the tournament as well, with gambling outfit William Hill releasing the lines for winning the competition. Not surprisingly, the Courage have the best odds, while the longest belong to the Pride.
The tough schedule and long odds don't seem to bother Amanda Duffy, the former NWSL president who is now an executive VP for Orlando.
It's unclear if this Challenge Cup will represent the entirety of the NWSL's action in 2020 or if a truncated regular season will be able to be played later in the year. That all depends on the status of the pandemic and the safety in each of the league's nine markets.
It also remains to be seen which players will participate. The league and its players union came to an agreement last week, which guaranteed contracts and benefits for players and accommodations for those with children.
Tournament rosters are expected to be finalized June 21.