The NWSL Challenge Cup gets underway Saturday, marking the return of professional soccer to the United States for the first time in more than three months, and statistical analysis group FiveThirtyEight has released its projections.
Defending NWSL champions North Carolina courage are well out in front in those, given a 27% chance to win the month-long tournament which replaces the 2020 season, featuring eight teams and 23 games, concluding with the July 26 final at Rio Tinto Stadium.
Here’s an overview of what lies ahead, with several MLS connections on the docket. The Houston Dash (Houston Dynamo), Portland Thorns (Portland Timbers) and host Utah Royals (Real Salt Lake) all have MLS ties, as do the Orlando Pride (Orlando City). However, the Pride had to drop out after a cluster of positive COVID-19 test results were found among players and staff before they were scheduled to leave Florida.
The Thorns are given the best chance to take the hardware among those sides at 12%.
How does the tournament work?
Each team will play four preliminary matches, after which the win-or-go-home knockout round goes home. Since there are only eight teams, everyone is guaranteed to reach the quarterfinals after points and tiebreakers determine that seeding.
The preliminary stage unfolds from June 27 through July 13, with all games played at either Zions Bank Stadium or Rio Tinto Stadium. All told, the entire tournament will unfold across a singular month. The complete rules can be found here.
What’s at stake?
The trophy hasn’t been released, but the last team standing will be dubbed the Challenge Cup winner.
There are also a handful of awards, including the Golden Boot, Tournament MVP sponsored by Budweiser, Golden Glove sponsored by Verizon and NWSL Future Legend. An entire Best XI will also be named after voting among players, media, fans and GMs/coaches.
Where can I watch?
Each encounter will be streamed on CBS All Access, with the fans outside the U.S. and Canada available to stream the full tournament on Twitch. The opening match (June 27, 12:30 pm ET) and final (July 26, 10:30 am ET) are also available on CBS.
The entire schedule can be found here.
How did we get here?
The COVID-19 pandemic brought a full stop to the professional soccer (and youth) landscape across the United States, and the NWSL’s plans — with the league yet to start its season — were no different. It was particularly tough, since momentum was surging after the US women’s national team won their second straight World Cup last summer.
As leagues scrambled to figure out next steps, the NWSL Challenge Cup was announced May 27. Teams eventually returned to training, and comprehensive safety measures were introduced. Now, with teams part of the NWSL Village out in Utah, all that’s left to do is play the games.