Luke DeCock

NC Courage forced to travel during Florence, team president blasts decision

The Courage’s Jessica McDonald brings the ball upfield during the North Carolina Courage victory over the Portland Thorns during a National Women’s Soccer League at WakeMed Soccer Park in August 2018.
The Courage’s Jessica McDonald brings the ball upfield during the North Carolina Courage victory over the Portland Thorns during a National Women’s Soccer League at WakeMed Soccer Park in August 2018. isiphotos.com

A league decision will force the NC Courage to gather its players and staff in the middle of Hurricane Florence and fly cross-country for a playoff semifinal, while forfeiting the home-field advantage the Courage earned by a wide margin, and team officials aren’t happy about it.

The NWSL announced Thursday that the semifinal the Courage was scheduled to host on Sunday against the Chicago Red Stars will be moved to Portland, Ore., on Tuesday because of the storm. The championship game will be played in Portland next Saturday.

“Clearly, we’re disappointed that the weather has denied our players and fans the celebration of a sold-out home playoff game,” Courage owner Stephen Malik said Friday. “Our preference would have been to play the game here. All along, we had a priority of being concerned about safety and, of course, our thoughts go out to anyone affected by the storm.

“As to the process, clearly the decision was made late. The league’s choice to make us deal with travel and prepare for a potential weeklong trip under these circumstances, that’s a big challenge. A colossal challenge.”

Earlier Friday, team president Curt Johnson took to Twitter to criticize the NWSL.

“This decision puts great pressure on our staff/players/coaches etc to prepare for trip in midst of storm,” Johnson tweeted. “No decision is better than bad one. Safety remains our priority for all involved. I’m baffled & disappointed for our Courage family.”

With the storm approaching the Triangle, the team had told its players and employees to stay home Friday and Saturday in the expectation the game would be postponed and played in Cary after the storm passed and the Red Stars could safely travel to North Carolina. Instead, the Courage has only three days to prepare and travel for a playoff game in the middle of a massive hurricane.

As of Friday afternoon, the team had yet to figure out how it would get to Portland given the storm’s uncertain path and impact on the Triangle over the next few days.

“It’s kind of a tough thing for us to be dealing with this, our employees to be dealing with this right now, right as the storm is going through us,” Malik said. “We’re working on that. Frankly, whatever we book, we’ve got a challenge with certainty.”

The Courage romped through the NWSL regular season with a 17-1-6 record and 57 points, a massive 15 ahead of the second-place Portland Thorns. With the championship game previously scheduled for Portland on Sept. 22, the Courage now faces the possibility of playing both a semifinal and the championship on the Thorns’ home field – the latter potentially against the Thorns, who would also have three extra days of rest.

“It’s unfortunate that we have such a big challenge in front of us,” Malik said. “The thing that keeps me positive, if any team can rise to that challenge, it’s the Courage. They’ve been able to do it over and over and over again. It’s just another opportunity for them to prove how fabulous they are.”

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock
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