OL Reign kicks off its 2021 Challenge Cup adventure at Cheney Stadium on Friday, April 16, in a match against the Houston Dash. That game kicks off at 7 PM PT and will stream on Paramount+ for fans in the U.S. and Canada, and Twitch for international viewers.
Houston won the 2020 Challenge Cup, and this will be game 2 for their squad. While OL Reign had a bye for opening weekend, Houston played to a 0-0 draw against the Chicago Red Stars.
Both teams will be without a number of their international stars, who are just returning after time with their national teams during the FIFA international break. But this is still bound to be a fun adventure, and what better way to prepare for the game than a conversation with friends. The Ride of the Valkyries family got together to get prepped and get hyped for opening day.
OL Reign has their first game of 2021 this Friday (!!). They’re going against the Houston Dash, who had a 0-0 draw against Chicago last weekend to kick off the 2021 Challenge Cup. For those who caught the game, what were your observations of Houston’s performance?
Tim Foss: I wasn’t able to watch, but from what I’ve gathered in discussions about the game and the overall Twitter reaction, it seems like Houston still have the energy that drove them to Challenge Cup glory last year, and Shea Groom is already at her Shea Groomiest. It’s certainly not going to be an easy game.
Steve Voght: It looked like a very early season game. A bit disjointed, a bit choppy, but you could see the idea Houston was trying to execute in dropping back to let Chicago attack and then trying to spring counters. They’ve used that strategy for a while now so I imagine it won’t take long for them to be executing it well again.
Jacob Cristobal: They looked like very much a team shaking off some rust brought on by the off-season and very long training camp. But in the later stages of the game, they were settling into the groove of things and probably are going to be the first team to bounce back into full rhythm that made them one of the more complete teams in last year’s Challenge Cup.
Susie Rantz: Yeah, it was disjointed on both sides. It did seem like Chicago created some good opportunities from their wide play (in particular Kealia Ohai), so I’m hoping OL Reign try to exploit that space as well. I’m mostly just excited to actually see the Reign in a real game. It’s been way too long.
Jacob Cristobal: Adding to Tim’s point about Shea Groom, there’s a state of Get Ready, a state of Stay Ready, and there’s a state of Stay Shea Groom.
Rachael Kriger: I do think the Dash have a really solid attack. Veronica Latsko — Pittsburgh! — and Shea Groom are really solid players. When they get Nichelle Prince, Rachel Daly and Kristie Mewis back?! Phewwwww.
Steve Voght: I think we’re fortunate to be playing them early in this tournament, and before several of their players are likely back in the lineup after national team duty. They look like they’re going to be a very pesky team again this year, even if their overall talent level doesn’t match that of some other clubs in the league.
Let’s move onto the Reign now. It’s been tough to predict how this team might do because we haven’t seen any preseason games or training. So, with that said, what are your expectations for OL Reign for the Challenge Cup specifically?
Jacob Cristobal: No one gets hurt.
Rachael Kriger: Finding the back of the net is a big one. The attack the Reign have, the players on the roster. There should be lots of goals.
Steve Voght: The west is stacked, so I’m far less focused on the results than I am on how the team meshes. It took practically the entire Challenge Cup last year for the Reign to look in sync, so I’m hopeful the long preseason this year will let them hit the ground running.
Jacob Cristobal: On paper this team looks to be crazy deep, which yay, but I’d rather they not have to test the quality of depth out of necessity and instead because head coach Farid Benstiti wants to give as many minutes he can to see how everyone is with an eye towards the regular season roster.
Tim Foss: That’s basically where I’m at as well. It’s less an expectation and more a hope that Benstiti uses the Challenge Cup to see what he actually has in that significant depth and to fine-tune the system.
Susie Rantz: Yeah. This team should be able to play some beautiful soccer that’s possession-based and attacking heavy. We saw hints of it in the Fall Series. I’m hoping to see more of that style come to life in the Challenge Cup — even if the goals and results don’t come immediately.
Jacob Cristobal: And I think that’s what will work in their favor — the fact that everyone knows there will be a lot more (and meaningful) games for them to play in. The pressure of “do everything well to perfect as close you can” in the Challenge Cup and that’s it, that’s your season, is gone in that sense.
Tim Foss: As far as an actual expectation, I expect to see Tziarra King take a step forward now that she’s in a more settled environment in her second season.
Steve Voght: We know the Reign and every other team will be missing a number of key players during the Olympics this year, and in prior seasons those gaps where the depth players have to fill in have seen some teams falter, or really make big runs to reach the playoffs. Getting those depth players minutes now, in games that “matter” less is going to be invaluable.
We just talked about depth in most positions, and how good it will be to see that tested early. OL Reign also has a lot of young players, and many of them are a little unknown right now. Are there specific players you are excited to see?
Jacob Cristobal: This is like that question you ask a parent of: which child do you love more?
Rachael Kriger: You guys know my answer... Costa Rican legend Shirley Cruz!
Steve Voght: We keep hearing good things about Angelina in training, so I’m stoked to see if that translates on the pitch. The Reign could use a little more flair in their midfield!
Susie Rantz: I agree, Steve. Angelina rates highly for me. We heard the team say they saw her as a long-term investment and not a player who needed to impact immediately, but it sounds like she’s making the case for herself right now. What a great problem!
Jacob Cristobal: Tziarra King, Madison Hammond, Nicole Momiki, Angelina..... I could go on...
Steve Voght: This also feels like a transitional year for an aging back line, with several young players vying for primary backup roles or even potentially fighting their way into the starting lineup. Players like Madison Hammond and Machaela George could really cement their futures here if they show well in the minutes they receive.
Jacob Cristobal: That’s the wild thing, just about every player under 25 they’ve brought in since last year’s off-season was talked up as being part of the youth movement for the future, but are very much ready to show they can do stuff and make noise now and be a starting eleven option.
Tim Foss: I already mentioned King, who I think we all know is an exciting player, so I’ll take this moment to give a shout for Sam Hiatt and Madison Hammond. To Steve’s point, this year is an ideal opportunity for a young defender to put a claim on the title of heir to Lu Barnes’s crown.
Jacob Cristobal: Speaking of Lu Barnes — free advice here: the Make A Difference travel kit, have a large size option. Call it Big MAD.
Tim Foss: I also just love a speedy, skillful defender, and even more so if they play in the middle of the back line. It’s especially important in a possession-based system to have centerbacks who can take care of the ball, whether that’s on the dribble or in passing.
Not to shift to a negative topic, but we’ve touched on it a bit in pieces already. Are there specific areas you have concerns/questions about ahead of the Reign’s first game?
Rachael Kriger: For me, it’s goalkeeping just because it’s an overhaul. Everyone is new on the GK depth chart.
Jacob Cristobal: The players that were here last season for the Fall Series had talked about how in those matches, they were getting closer to what they could do under Benstiti’s system. I’ve thought about all of the time between that and up to this point. How much momentum will they be able to carry over. We’ve heard the players talk about how the longer training camp has allowed them to work on the finer details, but off-season rust is still off-season rust and it’s certainly to be expected that they’ll have some of that against a team that’s very much established their in their system under James Clarkson.
Steve Voght: Beyond the question of if some of the young players are ready to step up, two disparate concerns come to mind for me. One is that it’s not clear who will be the ideal central/target forward. That was Jodie Taylor for most of the past few years, but the team has a few different choices now that each have some pros and cons. The other is in managing minutes and making sure all of the players stay happy with the amount of playing time they’re getting. There are currently ten midfielders vying for three starting spots!
Tim Foss: I think the point about GKs from Rachael is a good one, we just don’t totally know what to expect from any of the current options. To make their jobs even more difficult, I don’t really know that there was a CB not named Lu Barnes who really inspired confidence last year. If someone doesn’t step up and win the spot next to Lu, whoever’s playing in goal is going to have a lot of work to do.
Susie Rantz: I am a bit worried about scoring goals, but not because I don’t think the team is capable. I think they worried about creating the perfect opportunity too much last year, and somewhat panicked near the box. So I’d love to see some real confidence on the offensive side — even if that means some “what in the world” shot attempts early.
Steve Voght: Absolutely. If there’s one thing the NC Courage have taught everyone over the last few years, it’s that taking 47 shots a game ultimately pays off, even if half of them are speculative.
Tim Foss: I think some of the issue last year was that they were very clearly Learning A System, which occasionally led to passages of play where it looked like players were having to actively think about what the right thing to do was. Hopefully the longer preseason means more of that is instinct now.
Susie Rantz: I agree. Even during the Fall Series, we saw that system work better. More time can only (well, hopefully) be a good thing.
We saw Shirley Cruz became a massive creator during the Fall Series, which was really promising. I’m going to ask a ridiculously hard question to answer … but let’s have some fun. Which Reign player leads in assists when the Challenge Cup is over?
Jacob Cristobal: Nicole Momiki.
Rachael Kriger: I think Shirley Cruz will repeat, honestly. Her ball delivery into the box is outstanding.
Steve Voght: I agree with Jacob — I think most positive attacking play is going to come up the wings due to how the Reign’s Challenge Cup opponents will likely set up.
Tim Foss: Jacob stole my answer. He climbed into my brain and just took Nicole Momiki from me. If NWSL tracked MLS/hockey assists, I think Cruz would lead in that category.
Susie Rantz: I’ll go against the norm and say Sofia Huerta. But I agree that Momiki is poised to have a breakout year.
Jacob Cristobal: Some might even say.... a Dynamite year.
Susie Rantz: (Solid BTS reference there!)
Nikita Taparia: Popping in briefly to say MOMIKI HIVE ASSEMBLE. Seriously though, I agree with Tim. I think the creation will start with Cruz and then either pass to Huerta or Momiki.
OK, I have to ask a related question. Which player will score the most goals during the Challenge Cup?
Tim Foss: Boats.
Nikita Taparia: My hope: Boats and Tziarra tie.
Rachael Kriger: I think it’ll be Huerta or King.
Nikita Taparia: Although, I would be curious to see where Huerta gets played.
Rachael Kriger: Surprise! I didn’t say Shirley Cruz!
Tim Foss: I think there will be several players who are bunched together in that category, but I think Balcer’s work on her mental health/wellbeing/strength is going to pay dividends.
Jacob Cristobal: In a fair and just world, it’d be Balcer so she can get the Golden Croc because she’d be going into this Challenge Cup already a Crocs ambassador, but since that brand is ghosting her, maybe they’re not worthy of her greatness. That said, my prediction is still Balcer.
Steve Voght: Amazingly, we haven’t even mentioned that shiny new pink-haired weapon the Reign will have available on the left, Megan Rapinoe. I’ve heard some good things about her.
Susie Rantz: If the USWNT this year is any example ... if the Reign can win a few penalties, Pinoe has it in the bag! She’s definitely shown that she still has it, and that’s exciting. She could definitely be in the equation for assists as well.
Tim Foss: Rapinoe is the dark horse for both most goals and most assists, entirely dependent on how much time she spends with the national team. If Rapinoe is able to play in the majority of the team’s games, I think she’s a legit MVP contender.
Steve Voght: I do not envy Benstiti having to pick three of Rapinoe/Balcer/King/Huerta/Momiki/Spencer/Pruitt, with Watt lurking in the shadows to join the options later this year.
Susie Rantz: Such depth! It’s wild. It will be important to identify a core that works best together, but they can certainly go far because of the depth — and have players who can sub on and change games.
Tim Foss: The threat of any of those players off the bench is enough to give defenders cold sweats.
OK, final question to wrap things up. What are your predictions for Friday’s game against the Dash?
Jacob Cristobal: The optimist in me is going for a draw. The pragmatic in me says 2-1 victory to the Dash.
Steve Voght: 2-1 Reign victory. Balcer scores early to get the home fans excited, the Dash equalize in the 60th minute, and King grabs the victory in the 85th minute as a super-sub.
Tim Foss: There will be goals, and the biggest story will be about the actual game itself. Beyond that, I genuinely have no idea.
Susie Rantz: By the way, I hate score predictions. So apologies for the closing question.
My overall prediction is that this could be a draw. How many goals? I really can’t tell you. Houston isn’t going to have as much space at Cheney as they do at home, and I think that plays to the Reign’s advantage.
Tim Foss: My one specific prediction is that Shea Groom gets at least one yellow, maybe gets sent off trying to prove a point against her old team.
Rachael Kriger: My prediction is that there are two teams here with two advantages. OL Reign has the advantage of rest. But Houston has a game under their belt. They have the full game experience. I think there will be a lot of tackling and a lot of fouls. 2-2 draw.
Susie Rantz: Thanks for joining this roundtable chat, everyone! Can’t wait to see OL Reign finally feature in a real game — in front of fans as well! As a reminder, that game kicks off Friday, April 16, at 7 PM PT. You can catch the action in person at Cheney Stadium (limited tickets still remain) or on Paramount+ (US/Canada) and Twitch (international).