On Wednesday afternoon, the National Women’s Soccer League finally announced where the 2019 Championship Game would be held, and the league picked Sahlen’s Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, NC! It was widely rumored before the official announcement that the league was deciding between a match in North Carolina or in Utah at Rio Tinto Stadium; the home of Utah Royals FC. There are many factors that might have influenced the decision to award the game to North Carolina, but the Courage have a lot of work to do if they want to earn a home championship game, let alone a home semifinal.
Part of this comes down to the hurricane
It is inevitable that some of this decision comes down to the missed playoff game last season due to Hurricane Florence. In 2017, the Courage hosted the Chicago Red Stars in the first round of the playoffs and drew a record crowd of 10,017 fans. After a season of rewriting the record books, the Courage were set to host the Red Stars again in the semifinals last season, but after much waffling the league decided to move the match to Portland where the final would take place. The Courage leadership were quite upset with the move, but it was the correct one. Even though the hurricane did not live up to expectations, you can’t base big decisions around the best case scenario.
There was certainly some pressure from management to award the Courage this game to pay back the missed revenue from that playoff game that never happened, but the league shouldn’t be in a position where they can get pushed around by front offices. The 2016 and 2017 championship games registered less than 9,000 fans, and the Courage should be able to drum up enough support to bypass those numbers. Of course, if North Carolina fails to make the final - or fails to make the playoffs all together - then we might be looking at one of the lowest attendance numbers for a final in league history.
It’s also due to the MLS
As much as people want to focus on how this game is a payback game for Steve Malik, a huge part of this comes down to the MLS playoffs. Even if the league desperately wanted to secure RioTinto for the game, it is possible that a game in the MLS Cup Playoffs will be taking place in the stadium on the same date. I’m not sure how much the league tried to work with the MLS to deal with possible overlap, but I don’t think they would have much sway with the broso league. This means that a big chunk of the stadiums, like Orlando, Houston, Audi Field in DC, Utah, and Portland were all potentially locked out for the league.
This is a pretty weak excuse for the league, because I’m sure they could have worked something out if they didn’t wait until the last minute to schedule their championship, but at this point it might have been too late to reconcile the timetable.
I wish it were in Utah
This is just personal preference, and I love WakeMed Soccer Park, but I was fully on the Sandy, Utah train for this championship. The stadium is bigger. The team is newer. The fans come out for their team’s games with about twice or three times the attendance of Cary. I don’t feel like the stadium is worthy of the NWSL Championship just months after the end of the 2019 Women’s World Cup, in what figures to be the height of the NWSL’s popularity. We needed a stadium that could accommodate a massive crowd, and that just isn’t Sahlen’s Stadium.
Alas, the decision has been made and tickets can be purchased starting on Monday, July 8th. Sahlen’s Stadium has hosted the USWNT and the USMNT, so there is some history of big tournaments here. I just wish it had been larger stadium because I genuinely hope to see a massive increase in attendance for the league at large following the World Cup.