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OL Reign begin NWSL Challenge Cup with a scoreless draw against Sky Blue FC

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New faces and some long-awaited returns highlighted the game.

Soccer: NWSL Challenge Cup-OL Reign vs Big Sky FC Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

After months of anticipation and uncertainty surrounding if any teams in the NWSL would play, OL Reign finally got their first competitive match in the books, playing Sky Blue FC to a scoreless draw in their opening match of the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup.

Fans and the players may have wanted the Farid Benstiti era to start off with a win, but post-match, the OL Reign head coach felt positive about his team’s performance, saying, “We wanted to try to play well collectively and we did it. Maybe there was 15 minutes of stress, but after it was good.”

With forward Darian Jenkins out on the left wing, a spot usually occupied by Megan Rapinoe, she was often engaged in one on one battles with Sky Blue’s Midge Purce in the first half. Benstiti said of Jenkins’ performance, “Darian works very hard tactically, technically. I want her to be better with the ball, with the movement, trying to help the team build when needed.”

With the absence of Jess Fishlock, Benstiti opted for Rebecca Quinn to start in the midfield trio with Allie Long and Shirley Cruz, who played 75 minutes in her OL Reign debut. Benstiti cited the experience the three had at the international level saying, “Technically, I think they are very good. At the end, I think they can get better — but it’s good for their first game together.”

And perhaps spoiled by the earlier fixture in the second day of the NWSL Challenge Cup, which saw the Houston Dash and Utah Royals FC combine for six goals, fans may feel let down by a scoreless draw, but it was bound to happen despite the tournament starting off with such chaotic energy that only the NWSL can deliver. While OL Reign still has a good deal of players from last year’s squad, they are still adjusting to a new head coach with a new system who just experienced coaching his first NWSL match. Add in the context of all of the teams playing in the tournament having already qualified for the knockout stage, an argument can be made that they have more room to nail down the fundamentals of Farid Benstiti’s system before cranking the dial up to eleven, as much as we all want to see some bangers.

Of note from tonight’s match, we saw the debuts of not just Shirley Cruz, but also defender Alana Cook who went 90 minutes paired with captain Lauren Barnes. Taylor Smith, who the club signed in 2019 but was still recovering from a torn ACL, made her long-awaited club debut, entering in the 57th minute for Bethany Balcer. Nicole Momiki also made her debut, entering in the 75th minute, replacing Steph Cox. Rounding things out was Jasmyne Spencer, who also returned to the field after only playing 26 minutes in last season’s opening match before suffering a season-ending ACL injury.

In fact it was Spencer who had one of the best moments to not only claim a possible match-winning goal, but a storybook way of marking her return as she had a one-on-one situation against Sky Blue FC goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan in the 85th minute.

Both Long and Barnes were satisfied with the team’s first outing in the tournament. Each expressed that the team has areas to improve on for the next match, but feel those improvements are attainable.

“I was proud of us. I think things that we have wanted to work on, we did that and I think we just need to be a little bit better in front of goal. We could have scored a couple of goals today,” said Long of the team’s performance.

In her post-match press conference, Barnes said, “We’ve got new faces, new players, and new positions, so I’m just really proud of this team that put on a performance and hopefully next game we keep getting better and better.”

OL Reign’s next match in the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup will be on Saturday, July 4, against Houston Dash. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 PM PT and will be broadcast on CBS All Access for viewers in the US and on Twitch for international viewers.