The match that was supposed to happen a week ago has finally happened.
The rescheduled affair between Reign FC and Utah Royals FC still carried all the weight of the world as both sides’ playoff ambitions were on the line. While neither side could outright punch their ticket with a victory, claiming the result would put them in better position to grab the final available NWSL Playoff spot.
And after 90 minutes, it was Reign FC that captured the crucial victory and are on the inside track to clinch the final playoff spot with a 2-1 victory on Wednesday evening.
Given the stakes of the match, it was clear neither side could afford to make a mistake that could yield the opening goal. Utah would get some early, ambitious chances from just outside or inside the 18-yard box, but nothing that threatened Reign FC goalkeeper Casey Murphy.
Reign FC would actually have the best chance early in the match when forward Darian Jenkins received a through pass from forward Jodie Taylor and had a 1-v-1 against Utah goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart.
Four minutes later, Utah’s Christen Press had their most dangerous moment to strike first on the scoreboard — and perhaps it was a sign of things to come that despite two chances to strike, the USWNT forward could not find the back of the net.
While Press didn’t find the back of the net on the evening, Reign FC forward Bethany Balcer did. Despite being on the injury report with a groin injury, the rookie forward remained every bit the buzzsaw that is making a lot of noise in the most crucial stretch of the season for NWSL Rookie of the Year consideration. Using her speed to time it perfectly in receiving a lobbed ball from Taylor, Balcer cut through and from a tight angle to Barnhart’s left, sliced in her fifth goal on the season in the 40th minute.
Utah almost caught Reign FC sleeping on the restart from the goal with a flurry, but the Murphy-led defense was able to weather the storm and went into the half with the goal lead.
In the second half, Utah would find their equalizer. Midfielder Desiree Scott sent a long ball into the box that defender Becky Sauerbrunn headed back into the middle of the edge of the six-yard box to a crowd of Reign and Royals players. In the chaos, forward Katie Stengel was able to pluck the ball out and fire it past in the 67th minute.
In the 73rd minute, Reign FC had a golden opportunity to retake the lead when Ifeoma Onumonu, who came on replacing Balcer, connected on a Jenkins cross and launched a snap header from near point-blank range that somehow, someway, Barnhart got her hand and punched out. All the respect to Barnhart, it was a fantastic save and surely a NWSL Save of the Week nominee.
It looked like the match that each team needed to win outright was headed into a draw, but Vlatko Andonovski’s squad remained persistent and in the 86th minute, Taylor — who already had an assist on the evening — became the night’s hero.
Taylor volleyed in the match-winning goal off a Jenkins header that caught Barnhart off-balance and sent the Cheney Stadium crowd home happy.
So how big was Reign FC’s win tonight? Massive.
The win gives the regular season series meeting between Utah to Reign FC’s favor. The full three points obviously puts them at 34 points to Utah’s 31 with both teams having two matches left to play. While the victory didn’t clinch a playoff spot for Reign FC, they are one step closer to it.
“I thought it was a very good game from a tactical perspective. I think we had a good plan and we executed it so well. It was great to see that it worked and that we ended up winning. I think that from the first whistle we knew exactly how much possession we were going to allow them to have—we call it a ‘fake possession’—we knew which areas we wanted to attack and which areas we wanted to create opportunities. At the end, I’m glad it paid off,” said Andonovski after the match of the team’s performance.
Andonovski did not have an update after the match on the severity of Balcer’s injury, who left the match in the 52nd minute. Fans will likely have to wait until the weekend’s injury report to have a better idea of her availability for the remaining two matches on the season.
Reign FC’s next match is their regular season home finale. Yes, we are pretty much right at the end of the season and for the club’s penultimate match, they host that old familiar foe, the Portland Thorns FC. Reign FC will have a chance to do the regular season sweep of their Cascadian rivals, having won the first two encounters — both back in July.
The match will also be under the bright lights of the ESPN broadcast, as finally for the first time, Reign FC are the home side on a national TV broadcast for a regular season match. Because of this, the match will have an early kickoff time of Sunday, September 29 at 11 AM PST.