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OL Reign fall to Chicago Red Stars in NWSL Challenge Cup Quarterfinal

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Reign lose in penalties, 3-4.

2020 NWSL Challenge Cup - Quarterfinal - OL Reign FC v Chicago Red Stars Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup is over for OL Reign as they lost to the Chicago Red Stars 3-4 on penalties in the final quarterfinal matchup of the tournament.

For the third consecutive match in the knockout stage of the tournament, it went to penalties after a scoreless 90 minutes. While regulation was goalless for both sides, it wasn’t for lack of effort, especially with OL Reign.

After a preliminary stage run that saw them only find the back of the net one time, one of the questions coming into the match was if this is where Reign would finally show some danger in the final third. Jess Fishlock got her first start after missing most of the preliminary round due to a calf issue and went 67 minutes before being replaced by Bethany Balcer.

Fishlock’s influence was indeed a welcome sight as offensively the Reign had more bite and were able to make runs in Chicago’s defensive third. Fishlock joined Jodie Taylor and Shirley Cruz in having solid looks on Chicago’s goal and forcing goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher to react.

OL Reign continued to knock on the door in the second half, but could not break through as their shots were too high or just missed the mark.

Chicago’s best chance to get one past Reign goalkeeper Casey Murphy came in the 67th minute when Kealia Watt danced through the penalty box and fired from just outside the six-yard box, but pulled her shot wide left.

And so the match went the full 90 minutes scoreless and the final NWSL Challenge Cup semifinal spot had to be decided by kicks from the spot.

Cruz took the first penalty for OL Reign, and like her shots on goal in the first half, she sent the ball too high. Julie Ertz stepped up first for the Red Stars, converting successfully. The two sides then traded conversions with Nicole Momiki, Darian Jenkins, and Bethany Balcer converting for OL Reign. Vanessa DiBernardo, Kealia Watt, and Rachel Hill followed Ertz’s lead, each converting their kicks.

With the Cruz miss, captain Lauren Barnes had to convert to keep OL Reign alive in the shootout. Unfortunately her penalty went off the post and back out onto the field, and with it closed the book on OL Reign’s run in the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup.

Talking to media after the match, OL Reign head coach Farid Benstiti said, “I’m very sad for the players because the second half was very good, I was sure that we could score, we had some opportunities, but we didn’t score. We must be efficient when we play, when we have the advantage in positions, when the opponent is down. At this time we must be more efficient, but I’m proud about the players today.”

Benstiti also confirmed the rumor that OL Reign were to travel to France in August and play against some European clubs, including Olympique Lyonnais, but with European borders closed to US travelers because of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the only traveling the team will likely be doing is heading back to Tacoma for some well-earned rest.

And with their return to the Pacific Northwest comes a lot of uncertainty as to when will be their next competitive match. It is likely the NWSL Challenge Cup will be the only “season” the league will have, and the outlook remains a very foggy for what 2021 will have in terms of a normal regular season. That said, Benstiti did also say in his post-match press conference that the team might be looking for some more attacking options.

“Maybe we need a striker, a player who can score every game – that’s the difference in the really high level. If you have the ball, if you play well, if you are really offensive, if you’ve got some opportunities it’s very important in the games, we need one or two players more efficient, but I think next year we will be,” he remarked.

Time will tell what changes Benstiti and OL Reign CEO Bill Predmore have in mind for the squad as they prepare for 2021, and whether any players might be loaned out to other clubs to get additional playing time this year. The NWSL Challenge Cup tournament did welcome plenty of new faces and we got optimistic flashes of what they can do on the field.

The tournament was never intended to replicate anywhere near a full season’s output as far as players developing and taking their game to the next level, and while it is unfortunate that OL Reign’s time in the competition has come to a close, it was still a welcome sight to see the likes of Lauren Barnes, Jess Fishlock, Michelle Betos, Bethany Balcer, Darian Jenkins, and some new faces in Taylor Smith, Sofia Huerta, Shirley Cruz, and Nicole Momiki.

And perhaps the best and only way to close out this recap is with some words from The Dragon, MBE herself.