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Better late than never: NC Courage playoff game moved to Portland on Tuesday

This is worse than going to Chicago, just sayin’.

South Korea v United States Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

After a lot of waffling and non-statements from the North Carolina Courage and the National Women’s Soccer League, the decision has finally been made to move the semifinal playoff game between the Courage and the Chicago Red Stars out of the path of Hurricane Florence. Unfortunately, with poor preparation and timing, the game is going to have to be played at Providence Park in Portland, OR on Tuesday night at 9:00 p.m. ET. For the Courage, Portland is probably the worst possible playoff destination, but at least they won’t be playing in a hurricane.

Why Portland?

That question has two answers. The league’s reasoning is that the TV equipment is already in place, they were able to work out a TV deal with ESPN, and the final will be held there next weekend anyways. Those are all, at face value, reasonable answers, but I can guarantee that nobody on the Courage staff or roster is pumped up about going to Portland to play on Tuesday.

The more-true answer is that the league and the organization sat on their hands hoping for a miracle. They hoped that the hurricane would just spare them. They hoped that Chicago would say, “sure, we don’t mind flying down on Monday to play a game on Tuesday!” They hoped that by procrastinating everything would just work out. Instead, the Courage and Red Stars are going to be making long flights on Sunday or Monday to play on Tuesday. The winner of that match will then play the winner of Saturday’s match between Portland Thorns FC and Seattle Reign FC.

This was a hard decision. Moving the playoff game is going to be a serious financial blow for the Courage, who had just set regular season attendance records in consecutive weeks. Last year, this exact same playoff match brought 10,017 fans to Sahlen’s Stadium, and there probably would have been a larger crowd this time around. Those are big numbers that come with big dollar signs, but that doesn’t excuse the refusal to make a decision.

This is a bigger, systemic problem

Yesterday during the media conference call for the upcoming match, Chicago head coach Rory Dames was asked about how the decision was being made and who would make it.

Well I think the normal answer is the commissioner. Um, but I, since there isn’t one I’m honestly not sure. You know, I’m sure there’s a lot of people involved. Those decisions are made well above my pay grade. I’m sure the owners are involved. I’m sure the office is involved. I’m sure the television people are involved. I’m sure US Soccer is involved. Everybody has an interest in the league. So I honestly don’t know. I’m glad that I’m not the one that’s making the decision, because I’m sure there’s a ton going into it that we don’t know about, but I don’t know. And I think that’s one of the things that’s frustrating because when the decision is made who’s held accountable for it?

And therein lies the problem. It is natural that everyone involved wants what’s best for their respective side of the argument. Courage owner Steve Malik isn’t wrong for wanting the match to take place in North Carolina because this is a massive ROI for him. Head coach Paul Riley isn’t wrong for wanting the game to be played in his home stadium because that gives his team an advantage. ESPN and LifeTime aren’t wrong for wanting the game to take place at 3:00 p.m. ET on Sunday, because that’s the time slot that they cleared for the game. Rory Dames isn’t wrong for wanting the game moved to Portland, because that gives his team the most concrete answer to their travel questions.

The problem isn’t that those people are pressing their interests. The problem is that there is nobody at the top of the pile to make the final decision. There doesn’t seem to be anyone around who has the authority to make the final decision.

After 18 months without a commissioner, the 2018 season has been a long parade of monitoring situations until it was too late to do anything about them. Whether it was wildfire smoke, thunderstorms, heat, or hurricanes, the league policy is to wait until there are no more options and just play the game.

Good for Portland (and Seattle), bad for North Carolina

On the face, Portland looks like a neutral choice, but it is as far from neutral as possible. Remember the reception that the Courage received back on May 30th? That fire hasn’t stopped burning, and there are going to be thousands of fans on the side of the Red Stars from the first to the last whistle of the game. There is a healthy animosity between Portland and North Carolina that stretches back to the unbelievable 4-3 victory by the Western New York Flash in 2016 semifinal match in Portland (the Flash moved to North Carolina and kept almost the same roster for the 2017 season). That rivalry has grown with Portland getting the 1-0 win in last year’s championship game, the Courage getting revenge on opening weekend, beating Portland three times this season, and Jaelene Hinkle’s interview with The 700 Club.

A hostile crowd looms over the North Carolina Courage in their May 30, 2018 win over the Thorns.
Kris Lattimore

The timing of the match is also terrible for both teams. The winner is going to have just three days to prepare before the final on Saturday. It also means that any bumps and bruises from the semifinal aren’t going to have much time to heal before the players hit the pitch again. None of this would have happened if a decision had been made in time for the Courage to leave North Carolina in time for a game on Sunday. Now the local Courage fans will be staying up past 10 p.m. on Tuesday to catch the second half of their home playoff game. The Courage front office should bear the majority of the blame for this. Plenty of other opportunities were open on Monday when the decision should have been made.