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Union offer to host NWSL Challenge Cup final at Subaru Park if game has to be moved from Portland

Though the odds of the game moving are slim, the discussions between the Union and the NWSL have been substantive.

The Union's Subaru Park could be an alternative site for a big game.
The Union's Subaru Park could be an alternative site for a big game.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

The Union have discussed with the NWSL the potential of Subaru Park hosting Saturday’s Challenge Cup final between the Portland Thorns and Gotham FC if the league needs to pull the game out of Portland’s Providence Park, a Union spokesperson confirmed to The Inquirer on Monday.

Portland is set to host the game, which will be televised nationally on CBS, starting just after 1 p.m. Eastern time. But the county where the city is located is one of 15 in Oregon under a state-enforced COVD-19 state of emergency that bars large outdoor gatherings. That means the game would be played behind closed doors.

The NWSL would rather not have one of its showpiece games of the year be played without fans in attendance, especially given Portland’s rabid fan base.

Red Bull Arena, in Harrison, N.J., would have been next in line, but the venue is booked at the time for a New York Red Bulls vs. Toronto FC game. That game wasn’t going to be moved at the last minute. In addition to the impact on the teams, venue staff and fans, it’s on national TV in Canada because Toronto is involved.

The NWSL announced via Twitter on Sunday evening that Portland will host the final, after Gotham’s scoreless tie with Racing Louisville confirmed that the Thorns finished the Challenge Cup’s group stage with the most points of any team across the tournament’s two divisions. Coincidentally, that tweet went out just a few minutes after the Associated Press’ initial report.

But a source with knowledge of the situation told The Inquirer that the decision is not yet set, and multiple sources said the NWSL has been looking for backup venues for a while.

Gotham FC played its Challenge Cup home games at Montclair State University’s 5,000-seat soccer venue in Montclair, N.J., where it and the Red Bulls’ reserve team have played some games in the past. A small number of fans were allowed in for Gotham’s two cup games in recent weeks.

It’s not the venue you’d want for a marquee national TV broadcast, though, especially one with some of the sport’s biggest stars. Portland has Crystal Dunn, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Lindsey Horan; Gotham has Carli Lloyd, Margaret Purce, and newly-signed Allie Long.

» READ MORE: Crystal Dunn’s time arrives to be one of American soccer’s top stars

So attention turned to Subaru Park, and the Union quickly extended an open hand. It’s easy for fans in New Jersey and New York to drive to, and fans from the rest of the east coast would surely be interested, too.

That includes Philadelphia, of course, which hasn’t had a pro women’s soccer team in a decade but has a big fan base for women’s soccer. The U.S. women’s national team drew its largest ever crowd for a standalone friendly when it came to Lincoln Financial Field after winning the 2019 World Cup, and there’s a growing drumbeat to get the attention of big-money investors who could land a local NWSL expansion team.

In recent years, local soccer fans had to settle for driving up to Rutgers’ Yurcak Field in Piscataway, where Gotham (formerly called Sky Blue FC) played through 2019; or driving down to Washington to watch the Spirit at Audi Field or the various suburban venues it has called home.

The odds are that the game will stay in Portland. But there was a further plot twist Monday evening when Oregon offiials denied a request from NWSL commissioner Lisa Baird for an exemption that would allow 15% capacity in the stands -- a crowd of approximately 3,800 at the 25,218-seat stadium.

“Our medical protocols are sound, and all appropriate precautions are taken every time our players take the pitch for training and competition,” Baird wrote to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown in a letter obtained by the AP. “We’re confident the Thorns can safely accommodate fans and are hopeful you’ll consider our request.”

Gov. Brown’s office responded by noting that in the last two weeks, Oregon’s COVID-19 case rate has increased faster than in any other state in the nation.

“Governor Brown understands how much Oregonians enjoy attending live sporting events, but, for right now, that doesn’t outweigh the very real risk of resulting hospitalizations, and possibly even deaths with our current levels of COVID-19 spread,” the response letter said.

» READ MORE: A decade after calling Philadelphia home, Estelle Johnson is on a big stage with NWSL’s Gotham FC