It wasn’t the prettiest game, particularly over the first hour of play, but OL Reign ultimately outlasted Utah Royals FC to earn their first win of the NWSL Challenge Cup thanks to a 91st minute goal from Bethany Balcer. The 1-0 win gives OL Reign four points from three games played, which at least briefly lifts them to third place in the standings.
After the match, OL Reign head coach Farid Benstiti credited a change in attitude with the team gritting out a tough first win. “We talked about changing our attitude on the field. I think that was the essence of the game today,” he said in his post-game comments.
The Reign made several changes from their prior starting lineup, resting Allie Long and Lauren Barnes, moving Kristen McNabb into a defensive midfield role, and rotating their forwards. In addition, Michelle Betos saw her first competitive minutes since rupturing her Achilles tendon in May of last year. Betos was tested early when Brittany Ratcliffe sent a long, arcing cross into the box which she had to leap to punch over the bar, and had a few other big saves when Utah split the Reign defense, including charging out of her box to deny Amy Rodriguez a breakaway opportunity in the 15th minute.
15' - MICHELLE BETOS.— Ride of the Valkyries (@rovalks) July 8, 2020
That's it. That's the tweet. pic.twitter.com/OqHN7JqjdQ
The theme of the first half was sloppy play, as both teams struggled to string passes together and hold possession. The Reign were credited with their first shot on goal in first-half stoppage time, when a gentle Jasmyne Spencer attempt from distance was corralled by Nicole Barnhart just before the halftime whistle. The second half started similar to the first, with Utah starting to gain an upper hand with more direct play into wide areas which had been vacated by Reign fullbacks, but the duo of Amber Brooks and Alana Cook were able to snuff out any danger each time.
The tide started to change for the Reign in the 68th minute, when they made a pair of substitutions. Bethany Balcer entered as the central attacking midfielder, replacing Shirley Cruz, while Rebecca Quinn came into the defensive midfield for Celia, sending McNabb to fullback. Balcer was active almost immediately, taking a pair of good shots from distance which forced Barnhart into diving saves.
The final two changes of the day continued to build attacking momentum for the Reign. Nicole Momiki came on for Darian Jenkins, while Mariah Lee made her debut to replace Jodie Taylor in the 81st minute. Momiki quickly showed her skill with a beautiful diagonal ball to the far post which just skimmed off the forehead of the onrushing McNabb.
Just minutes later on nearly an identical play, Momiki sent another diagonal ball across the box. This one found the head of Balcer in a pocket of space between two Royals defenders. Her redirect seemingly caught Barnhart by surprise, deflecting off the goalkeeper’s hand and into the net.
OL Reign’s final game of the preliminary round is a Cascadia clash with Portland Thorns FC on Monday, July 13 at 9:30 AM PT. The Thorns are currently 6th in the Challenge Cup standings with two draws and a loss in their first three games.