On a warm Wednesday night at Lumen Field, OL Reign faced Racing Louisville in the NWSL Challenge Cup semifinal. The match started at a furious pace, with the Reign creating multiple chances in the first few minutes, but it was Louisville that drew first blood, capitalizing on a rare bad giveaway to score the first goal the Reign have conceded this year in Challenge Cup play.
The Reign worked hard to get back into it, but it was a night of repeated and sometimes bizarre frustration, with a long VAR review (unfortunately correctly) turning what initially looked like a Sofia Huerta penalty into a free kick at the edge of the box, an apparent Veronica Latsko equalizer quickly waved off for a phantom foul, and half a dozen good chances there for the taking instead ending up as near misses. As the minutes ticked on, the Reign dialed up the pressure, but chances went begging, and they couldn't find the final touch to break through.
Louisville's early goal on a rare defensive mistake proved decisive, and the Reign's Challenge Cup campaign is over.
WHAT WORKED: Welcome Back, Angelina
It wasn't necessarily a vintage performance, but Angelina took the field for her first start all season – she had previously played a total of eight minutes in two regular season appearances as a late sub – and showed at least a little of what she can do, providing a dynamic offensive presence, forcing defenders into hard choices, and nearly catching Racing goalkeeper Katie Lund in possession just two minutes in. The rust was evident, and several of her touches were just a touch off, but it's a huge boost to the side to have her back at all. Her vision and sauce on the ball are irreplaceable assets.
It won't salve a disappointing match, but her return to the starting XI, in a position the Reign have been struggling to fill in in the absence of her and Rose Lavelle, is something to build on.
WHAT DIDN'T WORK: Giving the Game Away
It took seven games for an opponent to score against OL Reign in the Challenge Cup. Unfortunately, in the 28th minute, Kirsten Davis picked off a bad pass by Sam Hiatt, took a touch, and cleanly finished past Laurel Ivory, putting the Reign behind for the first time all tournament. Giving the ball up at the edge of your own penalty area is never good, and it was an uncharacteristic error from a defensive unit and goalkeeping corps that had scarcely put a foot wrong to that point.
Goals change games, and gifting a good opponent an early lead in a knockout match is never ideal. The first goal the Reign conceded also proved to be the last, eliminating them from a competition they'd been unbeatable in.
WHAT DIDN'T WORK: Hitting the Target
There's plenty to be said about the predictive power (or lack thereof) of shots on target, but if you don't occasionally put the ball on the frame, you'll always have a hard time scoring. The Reign took 16 shots. Only two of those forced a save. They had six corners and four free kicks in dangerous areas. Chance after chance, and none of them quite good enough.
As with many other frustrating elements of this match, the offensive profligacy is becoming a problematic pattern. The Reign are out of the Challenge Cup. If they can't find a way to turn strong offensive play into actual goals, they might find themselves on the outside looking in for the playoffs, too.
WHAT DIDN'T WORK: Elyse Bennett (and Olivia Van der Jagt) vs. PRO
Laura Harvey mentioned after the game that she would get fined if she said what she thought about some calls, but we’re under no such peril. Despite consistently strong performances by Elyse Bennett, it's been a tournament full of frustrating and often inexplicable officiating decisions against her. (Remember when she scored a beautiful brace to lead the Reign to a 1-0 win?) That pattern continued once again, with Bennett whistled for numerous fouls where either no foul could reasonably be said to have occurred, or where she was the clear recipient of the foul in question. Particularly egregious was a moment in first half stoppage time where Bennett, after getting past her defender, was chopped down from behind, and somehow still adjudged the guilty party.
She wasn't alone. An apparent goal by Veronica Latsko in the 65th minute was erased by an absolutely phantom foul whistled on Olivia Van der Jagt, who would also see an inexplicable foul called against her moments later, erasing a promising attack after she won the ball and got taken out in her followthrough.
In a game of tiny margins, these moment to moment decisions have big impacts.
"We really wanted to win one finally.”
After the match, defender Sofia Huerta reflected on the team’s struggles in knockout competitions. “As a team, we make it to so many semifinals and we really wanted to win one finally, especially in front of our fans,” she observed. “I felt like the first 10 or 15 minutes we were really on them and then towards the end, we were putting it on them as well. I think we had opportunities to score and it’s unfortunate, but now we move on. It’s soccer, it’s life, we have to continue with the season and push for the playoffs.”
"Same as last year in the Challenge Cup semifinal"
OL Reign head coach Laura Harvey was nuanced in her critique of the game, mentioning that the team did itself no favors with their finishing. But she did note that they also have had a string of bad luck with calls that is understandably frustrating. “We have a penalty that gets taken away, I’ve watched it back… is it really clear and obvious that it was wrong?” she mused during her postgame comments. “No, but same as last year in the Challenge Cup semifinal [against Washington], blatant handball, didn’t give it. And I think Louisville have always been a team where when they’re up they try and kill games and you’ve got to have a strong referee that can control that moment.”
The loss eliminates OL Reign from the 2023 Challenge Cup. They will return to regular NWSL play at Providence Park on Saturday, September 16th, taking the field for their final regular season matchup against the Portland Thorns. That game kicks off at 7:30 PM PT and will air on FOX 13+ in the Seattle area, as well as on Paramount+ (U.S.), TSN+ (Canada), and the NWSL website (other international viewers).