A strange sequence of events has resulted in the Washington Spirit hosting OL Reign in a NWSL Challenge Cup semifinal at Segra Field on May 4, with kickoff set for 8:00pm. The Reign made the announcement just after midnight today after the conclusion of the entire Challenge Cup group stage. Venue issues at both Seattle’s Lumen Field and at Audi Field in the District have left Segra Field the unexpected host for what will be the biggest game played at the Leesburg stadium in its short history.
Washington knew they needed at least a draw to advance from the East group in the Challenge Cup, but entered the weekend likely needing a win. Their 2-2 draw with the North Carolina Courage kept their hopes alive, but in truth they were faint: only winless Angel City FC could send them through, and it would require the expansion side to get a win against the Portland Thorns late Sunday night.
However, Portland, hit by a number of players and even head coach Rhian Wilkinson having to enter the league’s Covid-19 protocol ahead of their trip to face Angel City who were themselves playing at an alternate venue in Fullerton, CA, fell flat, losing 1-0 to the LA-based newcomers on a Christen Press penalty kick.
This meant that North Carolina (East), Kansas City Current (Central), and OL Reign (West) advanced as group winners. The Spirit and Thorns both finished with 10 points, with the Spirit’s +5 goal difference giving them the tiebreaker over Portland (+2), sealing a spot in the semifinals for the 2021 NWSL champions.
With the Reign getting 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 final throughout the spring, Lumen Field — a venue OL Reign just moved to permanently during this offseason after years playing at Cheney Field, and where they are tertiary tenants behind the Sounders and the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks — is booked, as the Sounders host Pumas UNAM in the CONCACAF Champions League final. The Tacoma minor league baseball stadium is no longer allowed for use by the NWSL’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, which requires stadiums that do not require major adjustments to set up a soccer pitch.
The Reign’s statement on the situation reads in part as follows:
Despite the best efforts of the club to find an alternate solution to retain a home field advantage, the semifinal match between OL Reign and the Washington Spirit will be played at Segra Field in Leesburg, Virginia on Wednesday, May 4.
NWSL announced just before this weekend’s games that if the higher seed couldn’t host, the right to play at home would pass to the lower seed, which is how the Spirit ended up as hosts. However, Audi Field is also used for non-soccer events, and on May 4 it has been booked for the Project Play Summit, an event held by The Aspen Institute.
Doing some late-night reporting: Audi Field is unavailable for the #NWSLChallengeCup semifinal due to the Project Play Summit, an event being held by The Aspen Institute (a think tank) that is booked for May 4 #OneSpirit #NWSL https://t.co/bjncu2nFHj— Jason Anderson (@JasonDCsoccer) April 25, 2022
Segra Field is home to Loudoun United, who do not have a USL Championship match May 4, and is also the home venue for five of the Spirit’s 11 regular season home games. Washington’s history there has been rocky, as their record all-time is just 2W-1D-4L. On top of that, one game originally scheduled for Segra Field was moved by the NWSL on short notice to Houston due to ongoing construction and questions over whether the facility’s showers would be functioning. Though D.C. United told Black and Red United at the time that Segra Field met all NWSL requirements in time for the game to be played, NWSL required the Spirit to “host” the Dash, winning 2-1 in their one and only home game in Texas.
As the lower seed, even if the Spirit win, they will not have to host the Challenge Cup final. Kansas City, who play at Children’s Mercy Park, do not have a venue conflict, as Sporting Kansas City are on the road. USL League One side North Carolina FC, who are part of the same organization as the North Carolina Courage and share Sahlen’s Stadium, are on the road on May 7 as well.
OL Reign, should they go through, reiterated that they will host the Challenge Cup final at Lumen Field. However, even that comes freighted with problems, as the NWSL scheduled its broadcast window for the final with CBS for 1pm Eastern, which would potentially mean a 10am Pacific kickoff for what is supposed to be a serious championship game. Notably, NWSL — after major criticism from players and fans — moved last year’s league championship game from Portland to Louisville due to a broadcast window that would have required the biggest game of the season to kick off at 9am locally.
On top of that, the two teams that make the Challenge Cup final will have to reschedule regular season matches, as NWSL chose to schedule said final for a day that is also currently set to hold a full slate of games. Washington, should they go through, would maddeningly have their second regular season game (a trip to face the Chicago Red Stars) rescheduled for some unknown future date.
One silver lining in the choice to play at Segra Field is that the Reign will already be in the region, as they visit the Spirit in the regular season opener for both sides on May 1. That match will take place at Audi Field, so the Reign will in all likelihood simply stay in the region and train locally ahead of the Challenge Cup knockout game.