We’ve reached the end of the road for OL Reign in their 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup campaign. The final group stage match in the whole competition saw OL Reign travel to the middle of the country and face Kansas City.
Kansas City opened the scoring with a goal from forward Mallory Weber, but OL Reign goals from Jess Fishlock and Celia were enough to overcome the early deficit and Farid Benstiti’s side ended their Challenge Cup campaign on a two-match winning streak.
WHAT WORKED: RESPONDING AGAIN FROM AN EARLY HOLE
We’d prefer not to see them in this position, but it’s encouraging to see OL Reign able to respond again after conceding first. Of course, it helps when you have the one and only Jess Fishlock to galvanize the team and remind them they are very much still in this fight. And having Jess Fishlock take your penalties isn’t bad either.
WHAT WORKED: AEROSPACE ENGINEER SCORES MATCH-WINNING GOAL
Defender Celia has played every minute of the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup, along with fellow defender Madison Hammond and goalkeeper Karen Bardsley. When the calendar turned over to 2021, many fans were intrigued as to what development OL Reign’s younger players might achieve. Splitting time between centerback and her traditional fullback role, Celia has definitely been tested throughout the Challenge Cup, but has not let the growing pains get the better of her. The challenges and all of the playing time this early into 2021 got perhaps a very worthy reward as she headed home the match-winning goal in the 84th minute after a second-chance opportunity from a corner.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK: ANOTHER GIVEAWAY RESULTS IN EARLY BAD NEWS
If the Challenge Cup is the time in which OL Reign are working out all of the kinks as everyone continues to gel together and play as a team, the team sure is getting all of it out of their system. Six minutes into the match OL Reign were already behind a goal due to a giveaway in their defensive third, some unfortunate slipping on the field, and Kansas City’s Mallory Weber sending in a highlight-reel goal.
While OL Reign did equalize later in half through Fishlock’s converted penalty, Kansas City’s plan remained the same throughout that first half — send the ball over the top to counter the Reign’s game plan of pushing the fullbacks up, which left centerbacks Madison Hammond and Kristen McNabb often tested. Fortunately for the Reign, Kansas City is also very much trying to identify their own optimal starting XI for the season ahead, whereas a team much more in rhythm could have easily punished OL Reign for a second or third goal. Credit to Reign, though, for being able to keep the score level into halftime and they were much more organized in the second half in cut down immensely the window in which Kansas City had been throwing pebbles at, hoping to break another pane.
“I WAS TRYING TO SEE THE BALL”
That’s what Celia said post-match about having to deal with the stadium lights at Field of Legends being right on top of the goal when she was talking about her match-winning goal. She said from the field and having to look up to get a read on the ball, she was just hoping she could make contact with the ball and not outright miss it.
“THE TEAM HAS MOMENTUM”
In his post-match press conference, OL Reign head coach Farid Benstiti talked about the importance of eliminating mistakes when they have the ball because the transition defense of the NWSL can punish you very quickly. As he’s said throughout the course of this Challenge Cup campaign, the team must continue to improve on their efficiency when they have the ball and when they don’t. It’s looked rough at times where OL Reign couldn’t connect passes together, leading to giveaways. And while some of those mistakes have punished the Reign, Benstiti praised the team’s ability to bounce back and end the Challenge Cup with two straight wins. He closed his press conference saying that the wins against Chicago Red Stars and now Kansas City gives the team momentum as they embark on regular season preparation.
And that is it for the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup for OL Reign, who finish the tournament second in the West and fourth overall with a 2-1-1 record. While there is still one more Challenge Cup game to be played between Portland Thorns FC and Gotham FC to crown a 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup winner, for OL Reign it’s all about preparing for the NWSL regular season in two weeks’ time. Doing so on the high of a two-match winning streak certainly is a step in the right direction as the work for the long haul begins.
OL Reign begin their NWSL regular season campaign hosting North Carolina Courage on Saturday, May 15. Kickoff is scheduled for 7 PM PT at Cheney Stadium.