Here we are. The final competitive match for OL Reign in the year 2020. A year wrought with so much unimaginable, and yet OL Reign and the NWSL were able to pull off two series of competitions this year. Tonight, OL Reign ended their campaign in the NWSL Fall Series with a 2-0 win against Utah Royals FC.
Goals from Sofia Huerta and Leah Pruitt and a clean sheet for the defense and goalkeeper Casey Murphy closed out their year on a positive note, with the win putting OL Reign in 7th place on the final NWSL Fall Series table and, finally, head coach Farid Benstiti gets his first win of the fall tournament.
WHAT WORKED: AGGRESSIVE RIGHT OUT OF THE GATE
Slow starts had been a common theme for OL Reign in the very small sample of competitive matches they’ve been able to play. Learning a new system with a head coach that is new to the NWSL takes time. Yet in this match, right from kickoff, OL Reign was on the gas pedal putting early pressure and tests on Utah’s defense. Forward Leah Pruitt had a run and a shot from distance that Utah goalkeeper Abby Smith was able to knock out. OL Reign kept up the pressure regardless, inducing turnovers, and it paid off in the 24th minute courtesy of midfielder Shirley Cruz linking up with forward Sofia Huerta.
After collecting the @ShirleyCruzCR pass, @schuerta finishes it cool like the Pacific Northwest evening weather to make it 1-0, OL Reign's lead in the 24th minute. #RGNvUTA pic.twitter.com/t1lMuA91cW— Ride of the Valkyries (@rovalks) October 18, 2020
WHAT WORKED: LEAH PRUITT CHAOS!
A long time ago, when players would appear on the podcast, “Coffee & Valkyries,” there happened to be a bit of a bump in the player’s performance. Is the podcast bump an actual thing, we’re not sure, but our latest episode was an interview with the OL Reign forward and well...
Field agent @leahpruitt44 is reporting for duty as she claims her first OL Reign goal in the 51st minute and doubles the lead! #RGNvUTA pic.twitter.com/06OfSjerwu— Ride of the Valkyries (@rovalks) October 18, 2020
But really this is a fantastic reward for the team starting the game aggressive and the early run and chance Pruitt took, you just had a feeling that keeping it up into the second half would yield another goal for OL Reign — and it’s all the more better that it was Pruitt that got to benefit that reward.
WHAT WORKED: STEPH COX IS TIMELESS
There isn’t a specific play or moments in the match, but this is just a general appreciation for the defender. She thought she had hung up the boots. Then became an assistant coach for the club. Realized last season she had not only just a little bit in the tank, but a whole lot of it and played in all nine matches that OL Reign had in 2020. What a legend for the club and ambassador for the women’s game.
WHAT WORKED: CASEY MURPHY
With all of the aggression OL Reign had on the field, they definitely opened themselves up to some counter-attacks. Utah had some chances, but in one of the bigger moments where Utah could have claimed a goal back, goalkeeper Casey Murphy stood tall against Utah’s Michele Vasconcelos.
80' Utah's Michele Vasconcelos vs. @CaseyMurph.— Ride of the Valkyries (@rovalks) October 18, 2020
Murphy wins. #RGNvUTA pic.twitter.com/ztu1zim6tq
WHAT DIDN’T WORK: THAT WAS IT. SEASON IS DONE.
This may sound nitpicky on a night where everything came together, as midfielder Dani Weatherholt predicted in the post-match press conference last week, but it’s rather unfortunate it came in their final match of the NWSL Fall Series and 2020 as a whole.
We obviously should celebrate the NWSL for being able to pull off two competitions this year when it looked like there wouldn’t/shouldn’t be any sports at all. They absolutely did that and deserve the same amount of praise that their male sports counterparts get.
It does still hurt that this was the final OL Reign match in 2020, but they sure closed out the year in style, with a fun win, and a lot of positives to build on as they prepare for 2021.
“Even when we defended, we were aggressive.”
In his opening statement after the match, OL Reign head coach Farid Benstiti praised the team’s aggression for the entire match. He was proud that they limited Utah’s chances in their attacking third.
When asked about summarizing his overall first year coaching in the NWSL, Benstiti talked about three key moments in 2020: knowing if the league would play anything, preparing for the NWSL Challenge Cup in Utah, and restarting everything for the NWSL Fall Series. Benstiti praised the fact that the league was able to conjure up the Challenge Cup, citing that in their quarterfinal match against the Chicago Red Stars (losing in penalties) he felt the progression of players integrating his tactics was working. And then to have it all stop and wait a few months before the NWSL Fall Series was announced felt like they were starting over. Ultimately, Benstiti was happy to close out their final match with a win, as he looks forward to preparing for 2021.
“We wanted to force them wide.”
Coming out of the gate aggressive was very much the plan for OL Reign against Utah. In her post-match press conference, forward Sofia Huerta said that in forcing Utah to play wide, they were able to make runs behind their lines and keep the pressure to create chances.
Forward Leah Pruitt added that aggression was something the team was lacking in the first few matches of the NWSL Fall Series, saying, “If you watched our first few games, I don’t think we were as aggressive and we knew that we really wanted to high press the last couple of games. When you win in your attacking half, it’s much easier to be effective and score goals. So it was a priority of ours to defend from the front.”
And that is it for the 2020 “season” for OL Reign. It’s hard to offer a comprehensive season review of a team that only played nine competitive matches and through such a limited scope as far as access to the team. The things you can pick up through observation from attending training sessions or matches in-person obviously didn’t happen because of the pandemic. OL Reign are very much a team that is still a work in progress as everyone continues to get comfortable and integrate into Farid Benstiti’s vision and system of what kind of soccer OL Reign can play.
With an expansion draft right around the corner, OL Reign’s foundation is still there with stalwarts like Lauren Barnes and Jess Fishlock, but it’s clear that the immediate core/next generation of the franchise could feature players like Bethany Balcer, Sofia Huerta, Darian Jenkins, Taylor Smith, Nicole Momiki, and Rosie White, to name a few. The NWSL Fall Series also introduced not only the Puget Sound region, but the entire NWSL community to Madison Hammond and ask any OL Reign fan how much they’d love for her to be a part of that core for not just 2021, but years to come.
The next few weeks will be busy for OL Reign and the rest of the NWSL as teams will conduct their exit interviews with players, finalize their lists of protected players for the expansion draft on November 12 to kick off the off-season. After that, the league, much like the rest of the world, sits and waits for the calendar to turn over to 2021 and see if they can return to having a proper NWSL regular season.