The Seattle Reign have worked hard to put themselves in position to claim home-field advantage through the playoffs, building a five-point lead with four games left to play. And what a home-field advantage it would be, as the Reign have gone 16-0-5 all-time at Memorial Stadium.
But even if the Reign repeat as NWSL Shield winners, they won't be able to host the title game.
The three-year-old league is set to announce a rather significant midseason change: the NWSL title game will be hosted at a neutral site, with the leading contender being the Portland Thorns' Providence Park. The news was first reported by Soccerwire.com, but the discussions were later confirmed by Thorns owner Merritt Paulson on Twitter and independently by Sounder at Heart.
Although a formal announcement has not yet been made, the change was apparently approved back in April at an owner's meeting. The reason no announcement has been made is apparently because details are still being worked out. The other potential site for the final is the Houston Dash's BBVA Stadium, although the game will almost certainly be in Portland barring unforeseen circumstances.
Meanwhile, this is what the league's competition rules page says about the final: "The NWSL Championship will be a single championship match hosted by the finalist with the most regular season points."
It was also recently announced that the final had been moved to Thursday, Oct. 1. The final had originally been scheduled for the weekend of Sept. 26-27 -- which was itself already two weeks after the semifinals -- but made the change as part of the league's agreement with Fox Sports to broadcast a handful of regular-season games and the playoffs.
The reasoning behind the moves make enough sense. Playing on a Thursday is hardly ideal, but if it ensures the game is on Fox Sports 1 that's a fair trade off. Hosting the game at a neutral venue that has first-class amenities -- unlike, say, Starfire Stadium last year -- also makes sense and allows for national media to actually plan for the trip. But springing all of this on a unsuspecting public -- one that's already annoyed at how much precedence the national team takes over the clubs -- is a bad look. Even if the venue still isn't finalized, fans should have at least been told that the regular-season wasn't going to determine the championship game's host. (None of this even addresses the possibility of the Reign potentially being the designated home team at a neutral site played in front of their biggest rival's fans.)
North American soccer fans are admittedly used to rule changes being announced deep into the season -- MLS has made quite a habit of it, after all. And well meaning and logical as these changes may be, it could have been handled much better.