Courage-Thorns to kick off NWSL Challenge Cup on June 27

Two-time defending champion North Carolina Courage will play former two-time champion Portland Thorns on the opening day of the National Women’s Soccer League Challenge Cup, highlighting the June 27 return of professional team sports in the United States.

The NWSL held the draw for the event on Monday. All nine teams will participate, with all 25 games held in the Salt Lake City area. The final is scheduled for July 27 at Rio Tinto Stadium.

Each team will play four preliminary-round games based on Monday’s draw. Only the last place team will be eliminated after that preliminary phase. Eight teams will advance to knockout rounds that will then proceed in single-elimination format.

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North Carolina and Portland have one of the league’s fiercest rivalry, born less of geography than on-field familiarity. Portland beat North Carolina in the 2017 championship game, at the time denying the Courage a chance to sweep the regular season and postseason titles.

The Courage got revenge a year later by beating the Thorns in Portland in the 2018 championship game and becoming the first team in league history to sweep the regular and postseason titles.

The Western New York Flash, North Carolina’s predecessor that featured much of the core of the current Courage roster, also upset top-seeded Portland in a 2016 semifinal in Portland.

Chicago Red Stars and Orlando Pride will also play on the opening day of the tournament.

The second day of games on June 30 features Washington Spirit playing Utah Royals FC and Sky Blue FC playing OL Reign.

Houston Dash will be the last team to take the field, playing its first game against North Carolina on July 1.

“I’m actually really proud of us,” OL Reign midfielder Allie Long said of the league during the draw. “I think that we’re taking an initiative instead — rather than just waiting around and reacting and hoping things will get better. I feel completely safe with all the protocols in place.”

The opening games will take place at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah.