Washington Spirit to host NWSL Challenge Cup semifinal against OL Reign at Segra Field

A strange sequence of events has led to the Washington Spirit hosting OL Reign in an NWSL Challenge Cup semi-final at Segra Field on May 4th, with kick-off scheduled for 8:00 p.m. The Reign made the announcement just after midnight today following the conclusion of the entire Challenge Cup Group Stage. Hosting problems at both Seattle’s Lumen Field and the District’s Audi Field have resulted in Segra Field being the unexpected host for the largest game to be played at Leesburg Stadium in its short history.

Washington knew they needed at least a draw to advance from the East Group into the Challenge Cup, but the weekend probably needed a win. A 2-2 draw with North Carolina Courage kept their hopes alive, but the truth was they were shaky: only winless Angel City FC could take them further, and to do that the expansion side needed to beat the Portland Thorns late on Sunday night .

However, Portland, hit by a string of players and even head coach Rhian Wilkinson, were required to put themselves on the league’s Covid-19 protocol ahead of their trip against Angel City, who themselves were playing at an alternate venue in Fullerton, California and lost 1-0 for the LA newcomers after a Christen Press penalty.

This saw North Carolina (East), Kansas City Current (Central) and OL Reign (West) advance as group winners. The Spirit and Thorns both finished on 10 points, with the +5 Spirit goal difference giving them the tiebreak over Portland (+2) and thus securing a semi-final spot for the 2021 NWSL champions.

With Reign scoring more points than anyone else in the tournament, they drew Washington as their semifinal opponent and the right to host. However, with the Seattle Sounders advancing to the CONCACAF Champions League finals later this spring, Lumen Field — a venue where OL Reign just moved permanently this offseason after years of playing at Cheney Field and where they are tertiary tenants behind the Sounders and NFL are Seattle Seahawks – booked as Sounders host Pumas UNAM in CONCACAF Champions League Finals. The Tacoma minor league ballpark is banned under the NWSL’s collective bargaining agreement, which mandates stadiums that do not require major modifications to accommodate a football field.

Reign’s statement on the situation reads in part as follows:

Despite the club’s best efforts to find an alternative solution to maintain home field advantage, the semi-final match between OL Reign and Washington Spirit will be played on Wednesday, May 4th at Segra Field in Leesburg, Virginia.

The NWSL announced just before this weekend’s games that the right to play at home would devolve to the lower-seeded players if the higher-seeded players could not host, and so the Spirit ended as hosts. However, the Audi Field is also used for non-football events and was booked for the May 4 Project Play Summit, an Aspen Institute event.

Ironic, the list of speakers at the Project Play Summit includes new NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman, as well as US Soccer President Cindy Parlow Cone and USMNT Head Coach Gregg Berhalter:

Segra Field is home to Loudoun United, who do not have a USL championship game on May 4, and is also the venue for five of Spirit’s 11 home regular-season games. Washington’s history there has been rocky, as her all-time record is just 2W-1D-4L. Additionally, a game originally scheduled for Segra Field was moved to Houston at short notice by the NWSL due to ongoing construction and the facility’s showers in question. Despite DC United telling Black and Red United at the time that Segra Field completed all NWSL requirements in time before the game could be played, the NWSL challenged the Spirit to “host” the Dash and won by 2 in their only home game: 1 Texas.

As a bottom seed, they don’t have to host the Challenge Cup Finals even if the Spirits win. Kansas City, who play at Children’s Mercy Park, have no venue conflict as Sporting Kansas City are away. USL League One club North Carolina FC, part of the same organization as North Carolina Courage and sharing Sahlen’s Stadium, are also on the road May 7.

OL Reign, should they advance, reiterated that they will host the Challenge Cup Finals at Lumen Field. But even that is fraught with problems, as the NWSL has scheduled its broadcast window for the finals with CBS at 1:00 p.m. Eastern, which would potentially mean a 10:00 a.m. Pacific kick-off for a supposedly serious championship game. Notably, the NWSL moved last year’s league championship game from Portland to Louisville after strong criticism from players and fans due to a broadcast window that would have required the biggest game of the season to be kicked off locally at 9 a.m.

Additionally, the two teams that reach the Challenge Cup Finals will have to reschedule the regular season games as the NWSL has decided to schedule the finals for a day that will also currently host a full series of games. Should they advance, Washington would postpone their second regular season game (a trip to the Chicago Red Stars) to an unknown date in the future.

One bright spot in the decision to play at Segra Field is that Reign will already be in the area when they visit Spirit on May 1 for the regular season opener for both teams. This game will be played at Audi Field Reign will most likely just stay in the region and practice locally ahead of the Challenge Cup knockout game.

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