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NC Courage playoff preview: Hurricane Florence throws a wrench into the gears

What should the league do about a game scheduled during a hurricane?

Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park is scheduled to host the upcoming playoff match between the North Carolina Courage and Chicago Red Stars.
Photo By Alexisrael - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard that major hurricane Florence (“Flo” for short) is heading for the Carolinas. Current model guidance suggests landfall on the North Carolina coast before a slow crawl inland over the next 72+ hours. The coastal areas of South Carolina, North Carolina, and parts of Virginia have already been evacuated as states prepare for one of the strongest storms to ever make landfall on the East Coast to arrive. Colleges are closing, college sports are being cancelled, and people are rushing away from their late-season vacations to avoid the disaster. Grocery stores are out of water and food as people stock up and prepare to be without electricity and potable water for days or weeks. The only people that don’t seem to concerned are the National Women’s Soccer League.

On Monday, undoubtedly after being inundated with calls and emails from people like myself and more reputable reporters, the NWSL and North Carolina Courage put out a statements saying that they were “closely monitoring” the situation. That statement had a fellow reporter quip that she wished she loved anything as much as the NWSL loves to monitor situations.

What does the current forecast say?

I’ve seen a lot of people saying things like “remember X storm when it was supposed to hit here and it actually hit 100 miles away?” Yes, it’s possible that over the next 48 hours something changes and central NC is completely spared, but we only remember the times it didn’t hit the projected area because it’s the rarity. The vast majority of the time hurricanes are pretty well tracked within two days, and the odds of the Cary, NC area not being affected by this storm are vanishingly slim.

As of 2 a.m. ET Wednesday, the best landfall guess is around Wilmington or a touch south. Flo will then proceed southwest, passing underneath the Raleigh area Saturday afternoon or evening. Sunday morning, the remnants of Flo will be a tropical depression moving toward the NC mountains. Rainfall totals on the coast could reach nearly 48 inches according to some models, and the Cary, NC area should be expecting 6-10+ inches of rain as Flo passes by. Even as the storm brushes the coast and moves south, sustained tropical storm force winds are likely to sweep through Central NC and gusts are projected to reach hurricane forces of 74+ MPH.

Typically, as hurricanes strengthen and hit the coast atmospheric steering sends them toward the poles, but Flo is going to be different. A ridge of high pressure is building near the Great Lakes, and that feature acts as a wall to prevent northward movement of the hurricane. Over the last 24 hours we’ve seen the projected model track pushed South and away from a direct impact in Central NC because that blocking has been developing stronger in the computer simulations. If the blocking relaxes then Flo will crawl due west instead of southwest, increasing the impact for the Raleigh area. A 50 mile shift north or west would be devastating for the area. Flooding and cleanup will likely last days or weeks after Florence is done spinning over the Carolinas. Even though the immediate danger for the Triangle seems lower, this is still going to be a major storm.

What are the league’s options?

As of Tuesday, the most direct answer I was able to get was that they are planning to play the game as scheduled. Obviously this is absurd. You can’t play a soccer game with tropical storm force winds blowing through the area (it should be noted that the strongest winds are typically in the NE quadrant of tropical cyclones - right where Cary would be on the current models). If they are planning on kicking off at 3:00 pm ET on Sunday then Mother Nature has a rude surprise in store. Here are a few realistic options. Heavy rains and sustained winds of 25-35 MPH are projected for early afternoon.

Option 1: Postpone the game - This option seems to be the favored option at present and is, quite frankly, moronic. In the absolute best case scenario the game could be played on Monday at Sahlen’s Stadium as the coastal and southern areas struggle to recover from the disaster, but waiting also runs the risk of the hurricane being worse than anticipated and further postponement to Wednesday or later. This is unacceptable. The final is going to be played on Saturday in Portland, OR. Even if you get the game in on Monday, you’re likely going to have to bus the teams to Richmond, VA to catch a flight to Portland since RDU will be recovering from delays and a hurricane. The teams will not have time to practice or prep, and they will be on short rest as they make their cross-country flight.

I get that everyone wants the game to be a home game. We earned this home game by having the best regular season in the history of the league. I’m a season ticket holder. Of course I want the game to be played in Cary, NC. I drive 3.5 hours every weekend to watch the Courage play, but I’d rather see the team rested and healthy for the final. Maybe the hurricane will be a major bust, the game will kickoff at 3:00 pm on Sunday and I’ll be left eating crow, but that isn’t the prudent solution at this time. Anyone who wants the team to play on Wednesday so that they can go to a home game is selfish and not considering the gravity of what they are suggesting from a health and wellness point of view for the players.

Even if all of that works out, you still have a major transportation problem for the Chicago Red Stars. Normally, the Red Stars would fly out on Friday, but that is a no go. They can’t fly to Raleigh on Thursday or Saturday, either. They would have to fly in on Wednesday, then proceed to sit in a hotel for the next three days as both teams wait for the hurricane to pass before assessing the damage to decide if they even get to play the game. Both teams would have no chance to practice for four days leading up to the match the might not even happen. They could be stuck in a hotel without electricity or water for days, all for the privilege of not playing the game.

Option 2: Move the game somewhere neutral - While anywhere north of the Virginia border is probably acceptable, including City Stadium in Richmond, VA where the Courage played a preseason match against the Washington Spirit, I’m going to focus on Audi Field in Washington, DC where DC United are now playing. The stadium is brand new and recently hosted a Spirit game back on August 25th. There are other options, but Audi Field seems the most professional.

The biggest issue with Audi Field is that DCU has a match on Sunday. This means that the game would need to be moved to Saturday and it might mess with the TV broadcast. It has the benefit of being relatively close to Cary, NC, there is a major airport right in the city, the teams should have no issue finding lodging, and they would be able to continue practicing in the time leading up to the game.

The big negative is that DC isn’t a home game for either team. It’s not too likely that many of the hurricane-plagued Courage fans will be able to make the trip to the nation’s capital in the middle of a hurricane, and on such short notice attendance would be sparse. I would tend to shy away from this option for these reasons, but it is still preferred over postponing the game and potentially traveling to Portland to play the final on three days of rest.

Option 3: Move the game to Chicago - This is my favorite solution. There, I said it. Is it fair to the Courage? Nope. Does it give the fourth-place team a prize? Yep. Will I be able to attend the game? Almost certainly not, but I’d explore plane tickets.

Now, Chicago does have the same problem as DC. The Fire play there on Sunday, so the game would need to be moved to Saturday. I like this option best because I would rather see a well-attended game with fans cheering, even if they are cheering for the other team. The Courage deserve to be seen by as many people as possible, and this would definitely bring the most fans to a stadium on short notice. I also don’t think that this is a huge advantage for Chicago. We played at Toyota Park twice this season. The first time was a 1-1 draw and the second was a massive 4-1 victory. The Courage were undefeated on the road this year, earning eight wins, four draws, and zero losses (first team to go undefeated on the road, btw).

For those of you who hate this option, it seems like it has initially been rejected as an option.

This situation sucks, but someone needs to make a call

I am worried that the NWSL, missing a commissioner for 18 months and counting, is just going to kick the can down the road until it is too late. Waiting before making a hard decision is always the easy way out, but we are out of time. The closer we get to Sunday the fewer options are on the table. The last possible chance for Chicago to fly in to Raleigh is tomorrow. The last chance for the Courage to fly out of Raleigh is tomorrow. Waiting until tomorrow severely limits the options and almost forces a gamble with option 1.

Move the game. Move the game now so that both teams can make the necessary preparations. Move the game to Chicago so that the stadium will be full of cheering fans.

Late Addition: We also have audio of Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler saying that his team would not be traveling to NC prior to Florence making landfall. They expect to have a final answer within 24 hours.