It was always going to be a tough match, trying to dethrone the defending NWSL Champions. Given how the 2019 Reign FC season has gone, the task was looking even more improbable, if not downright impossible.
Yet, Reign FC pushed the reigning NWSL Champions North Carolina Courage into extra time in their NWSL playoff semifinal, before conceding three goals in extra time and falling, 1-4.
How Reign FC were able to do that should not be lost on anyone, as the team played some incredible defense to bend as much as they could without breaking, led by a superhuman effort by goalkeeper Casey Murphy.
Murphy made her Reign FC debut earlier this season, coincidentally in a match against North Carolina. She was basically pushed into emergency duty due of the season-ending injury to Michelle Betos, and Lydia Williams was at the World Cup with Australia. Murphy and Reign FC would win on that day, and from that point on Murphy remained the team’s first-choice goalkeeper.
For those who may not have followed Murphy’s exploits in France prior to her signing with Reign FC, it was a revelation that she is more than capable of hanging in this league. Yet anytime you talked with Murphy after a match or at a training session, there was a confidence in her that she could come in and become the team’s first-choice goalkeeper. Over the course of the season, fans surely got to see what she can do between the posts and on Sunday, she put in a superhuman performance to cement for hopefully years to come that this is her team.
Right from kick off, North Carolina did what anyone expected them to do — get the ball and get shots. However for the saves that Murphy made — and there were many — North Carolina didn’t have that infamous quality on their shots to find the back of the net. Murphy would be put to the test within the first two minutes and her strong effort to deny the Courage set the tone of the match.
Reign FC did get a promising chance in the 37th minute when Darian Jenkins sent in a beautiful cross into the box that Bethany Balcer got her head on. The deflection forced North Carolina’s Stephanie Labbe to dive to her right.
The tale of the first half was indeed Reign FC playing bend but don’t break defense, and they were able to hold North Carolina scoreless with timely clearances. This would continue through most of the second half, with Murphy continuing to put on a clinic in thwarting North Carolina’s efforts to find the back of the net.
It looked like the match was going to head into extra-time scoreless until North Carolina was awarded a penalty in the 87th minute. Defender Lauren Barnes went in for a sliding challenge on a cross and unfortunately the ball caught her arm. Heather O’Reilly converted the penalty for North Carolina and it looked like Reign FC’s season was just a handful minutes away from being over. Until...
Ifeoma Onumonu was acquired by Reign FC on May 14, eight days after Portland Thorns FC waived her. The change of scenery was of benefit to both Onumonu and Reign FC as she made 21 appearances over the course of the regular season and claimed three goals. It would be her goal in stoppage time after 90 minutes that was her biggest as a Reign FC player, as the equalizer kept their season alive and sent the semifinal match into extra time.
Unfortunately, extra time is where the defending NWSL champs showed their mettle and punched their ticket to the NWSL Championship, with a chance to repeat as the title holders.
North Carolina claimed their second goal off a beautiful free kick by Debinha.
And then, because the game can be so cruel, an own goal was charged to Lauren Barnes after her sliding block of a Kristen Hamilton cross bounced between Murphy’s legs.
Crystal Dunn would add a superfluous fourth goal.
And with that, Reign FC’s 2019 season came to an end, once again in the semifinal round of the NWSL Playoffs.
Naturally, fans will ask what could have been with this team if they had a fully healthy squad, however they never used that as an excuse. The players did not quit on each other and were still able to push the defending champions to the limit. The fact they were even in a position to be playing post-season soccer was indicative of the character of the team, which continually rallied and fought through so many injuries and World Cup absences.
Now the team shifts focus to an off-season that could see a lot of departures. Most notably at top are the rumors of head coach Vlatko Andonovski being considered for the vacant USWNT head coach spot. And while the league has yet to officially announce it, NWSL expansion is on everyone’s radar and with that will almost certainly come an expansion draft.
There surely will be plenty of time to cover what’s next for the club and the league as a whole. For now, it is time to sit back and appreciate what a roller coaster season it has been for Reign FC.
The NWSL Championship is scheduled for next Sunday, October 27. North Carolina Courage will look to repeat as champions and they await the Chicago Red Stars, who defeated the Portland Thorns, 1-0, in the other semifinal. Broadcast of the Championship match is scheduled for 12:30 PM PT on ESPN.