OL Reign battled the Portland Thorns to a 0-0 draw in a scrappy final game for both teams in the preliminary round of the NWSL Challenge Cup. The draw guarantees that the Reign will finish in either 3rd or 4th place for the knockout round, depending on the result of the North Carolina Courage / Sky Blue FC game this evening. Portland is locked into 8th place and will face the Courage in the quarterfinals. This was only the second time in 24 games that the Thorns and Reign battled to a scoreless draw.
The Reign made numerous changes to their starting XI, including the debut of Sofia Huerta, who returned from a hamstring injury that caused her to miss the opening three matches. Jess Fishlock also returned from her ACL injury to make a cameo appearance for the final 17 minutes. Also subbing in for her debut was new signing Adrienne Jordan at fullback.
As has been the case for many OL Reign games in this tournament, the game was a sloppy affair. Portland pressed high early and pinned the Reign in their own half for most of the opening half-hour before the team settled down and started connecting their passes more effectively. Heat and fatigue were likely factors, with the temperature already in the mid-80s and the Reign coming off only four days rest compared to Portland’s full week between games.
One consistent bright spot throughout the game for the Reign was fullback Steph Cox, who had a couple of critical clearances and tackles in defense and sent pinpoint long balls into the attacking third several times to create good scoring opportunities. The first of those passes came just before the hydration break where she found Dani Weatherholt at the top of the box, but the ensuing shot was blocked. Another in the second half put Jodie Taylor in behind the Thorns defense, but a loose first touch enabled Portland goalkeeper Bella Bixby to smother the shot.
Late in the first half there was some concern when forward Bethany Balcer had to leave the game and appeared to be having some significant difficulties on the sideline. After the match she shared that she was dealing with a panic attack that resulted in breathing problems.
Her replacement, Taylor Smith, provided a lot of offensive spark for the Reign. Smith led the team with four shots and had several very good looks that either went just wide or forced Bixby into diving saves.
Yet again for the Reign, substitutes significantly changed the tempo and momentum of the game. Darian Jenkins and Nicole Momiki entered in the 58th minute for Huerta and Allie Long and almost immediately started putting a lot more pressure on the Thorns defense, leading to numerous turnovers. The game opened up and became more stretched, but most of Portland’s best opportunities came on shots from distance which hardly bothered Michelle Betos.
In his post-game remarks, OL Reign head coach Farid Benstiti talked about the importance of squad rotation in this game as the team looks ahead to the knockout round. “We have [Kristen] McNabb rested, we had [Shirley] Cruz rest, we had Darian come on late, we had Alana [Cook] rest. Many players rested today. That’s really good for us. In the quarterfinal the competition will be really hard.”
If Sky Blue FC wins or draws against North Carolina in tonight’s match, OL Reign will drop to fourth place and have a rematch against the Houston Dash in the quarterfinals. Should the Courage win the Reign will remain in third place, but they could face either Utah, Chicago or Sky Blue depending on how many goals North Carolina wins by.