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What If... OL Reign’s Challenge Cup run edition

A Challenge Cup post-mortem the day after.

NWSL: OL Reign at Washington Spirit Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

In the land of comic books, there is a series by Marvel Comics called WHAT IF... in which historic moments across the rich timeline of their comics happened differently. You might have even seen the Disney+ animated mini-series of the same name exploring alternate timelines.

As we all know in sports, there must be a winner and there must be a loser. Maybe this is just an exercise of me writing my feelings, but you can’t deny that anyone associated with OL Reign feeling jobbed by the blatant miss of a handball violation that could have set up a walk-off penalty kick. Last night was an interesting case of duality for fans of both OL Reign and the Sounders.

“It’s just the Challenge Cup, move on Jacob.” Sure, but for all the discourse about what the NWSL Challenge Cup can be for the teams and players, there is prize money at the end of the course. Players on the winning team get $10,000 each. So there is something very tangible and lucrative for the teams to put in a campaign to win the competition. For the team to lose out on a chance to play for that prize money because of a glaring officiating mistake, it’s why you have commentary last night like this:

And this feeling of disappointment isn’t exclusive to just OL Reign. Other teams/competitors across other sports have had a game in which they feel they got jobbed out of a victory at a pivotal moment. While OL Reign’s NWSL Challenge Cup ended last night with such a controversial talking point, that perhaps when you take in the backdrop of the NWSL Challenge Cup, it might be fitting to consider their very own WHAT IF...

WHAT IF THE SEMIFINAL WAS PLAYED AT LUMEN FIELD?

OL Reign had the best record at the end of the Challenge Cup group standings. They earned the number one overall seed, and were supposed to host the semifinal against the Washington Spirit. What if the NWSL had actually planned out the scheduling and secured the date at Lumen Field? Yes, it might have altered the outcome of the Seattle Sounders FC once again inventing history in becoming the first MLS club to win the CONCACAF Champions League. But the NWSL announced the Challenge Cup dates well before the Sounders’ Champions League run was set on course to making history. As the group stage matches were coming to a close, followers of the league mentioned, “Hey, this could be a schedule conflict,” and the NWSL shrugged their shoulders until it was too late and just passively announced the semifinal hosting scenarios. No amount of asking for a schedule adjustment or venue change within Washington state was going to fix it at that point. The NWSL screwed up the scheduling in terms of having the Challenge Cup overlap into the regular season, and by not actually securing all possible venues on the dates they were fixed on, since the league wanted to hit certain dates due to their broadcast deal with CBS.

And because OL Reign weren’t able to host the NWSL Challenge Cup semifinal at Lumen Field, fans missed out on giving their team the proper support that comes with a home field advantage. Additionally the club missed out financially because they couldn’t host the semifinal. If the league had properly planned out the scheduling so OL Reign could have secured Lumen Field, we’ve seen that the Puget Sound region will turn up for cup competitions, perhaps even going beyond the 10,000 seating capacity configuration and posting a good box office number.

New league commissioner Jessica Berman has already acknowledged the need to better plan out next year’s schedule. Whether that includes the Challenge Cup revamped in some way remains to be seen. What can’t be argued is that current structure of the Challenge Cup cannot happen again, where it overlaps into the regular season, leaves a frankly unreasonable short turnaround time between matches, and the requires regular season matches (some of which are home openers) bumped at the last minute. No team that needs to plan out the logistics of traveling to a road match should be put in a position to have to tweet something like this.

If the NWSL wants the Challenge Cup to continue to exist with prize money is on the line in addition to the regular season, there are plenty of examples of successful cup competitions to draw from, in looking domestically at how the US Open Cup is structured, at European league cups, and there’s also an example in the WNBA’s Commissioner’s Cup. Perhaps the NWSL can call the WNBA and copy their homework.

WHAT IF OL REIGN FINISHED THEIR CHANCES IN REGULATION?

For all of the rightful frustration OL Reign will have about the missed handball call, they are still their toughest critic and know that for all of the effort they put in last night, they should have finished their chances; avert your eyes at this chart.

Rose Lavelle had a pass for Jess Fishlock in the first half that was just a bit too ahead for The Dragon to get a foot on, which could have opened the scoring. There were Bethany Balcer’s two chances against Spirit goalkeeper Aubrey Kingsbury. There was the beautiful set piece play that ended with Alana Cook’s shot finding the back of the net, which was waved off because both Ally Watt and Fishlock were offside. Where OL Reign on Sunday never really established rhythm, last night showed a lot more promise that as a collective, they can find that confidence to just shoot when the opportunity is there. It’s reasonable to think the general fatigue of a short turnaround between matches is why there wasn’t that final bit of quality.

And yes, OL Reign went round-for-round against the Spirit in the penalty shootout, until they fell short in the tenth round. They had a grand opportunity to win it there and no one would have been left with the horrible feeling of the missed call that was clear as day, bright as the floodlights of Audi Field.

The what-ifs mentioned are just going to be that. None of us have Doctor Strange’s powers to access the multiverse to experience a timeline in which the NWSL actually exercised calendar management and/or has VAR as a safeguard to correct the human element when it happens. However the sequence of events that ended OL Reign’s 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup run does present us one final what if.

WHAT IF THIS CHALLENGE CUP EXIT MOTIVATES THE REIGN?

All of this could result in OL Reign doing something big in the regular season. Reign Originals Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Barnes still found a lot to praise the team for during the week they spent in Washington D.C. Everyone stepped up, remained focused, and put in a better performance on Wednesday night, which can be built on as they prepare for Sunday’s match against Racing Louisville. This is a team that knows frustration, anger and heartbreak, and now has a chance to channel that energy into positives going forward.

This team is deep, with first- and second-year players showing not only promise but that they can hang with with international-caliber teammates and opponents. What they did in the group stages of the Challenge Cup has followers of the league viewing them as a contender for silverware at the end of the season.

So perhaps the only thought to ponder the morning after their Challenge Cup run came to an end is:

What if this fuels OL Reign to win the whole damn thing?