OL Reign 1
Utah Royals FC 0
NWSL Challenge Cup
July 8, 2020
With quarterfinal seeding coming into focus OL Reign and Utah Royals faced off Wednesday morning in Utah in the third NWSL Challenge Cup match for both sides.
OL Reign were still without the services of both Jessica Fishlock and Sofia Huerta for the match. Sitting on one point after the first two matches, points were becoming increasingly important. Also, the club had failed to score in either match, while conceding only two with a clean sheet to still manage a draw and a point in the standings. OL Reign utilized their squad depth with a significant line up roll over from previous matches, giving a number of players their first starts or minutes of the tournament. Goalkeeper Michelle Betos saw her first action in over a year since a serious injury ended her 2019 season within the first matches.
The Royals entered with four points, having a win and a draw, including late heroics in their opener. A result in the third match, with the four points with minimal missing players, was an opportunity for the Royals to move up in the standings going into the upcoming last group phase match day.
Utah went at OL Reign early, utilizing the dangerous runs and creativity up front of Amy Rodriguez. Despite some chances, there was a fair amount of end to end possession play, resulting in a goalless first half. For the Royals, the first half ending nil nil was an opportunity lost. Even without scoring in the first 45 and sitting a few key players, Utah could build on some of the dangerous opportunities they were creating after the break.
OL Reign went in to the interval having found more of the game as the half progressed. Jasmyne Spencer hit the side netting late in the half and striker Jodie Taylor had been heavily marked by the Utah center backs, but a level first half was a good start. The Reign defense continued to hold tough, leaving it with only a single goal conceded in two and a half matches.
Goalless matches get tighter as the minutes tick down. This was no exception. As each opportunity takes on more potential as a game changing event. Bethany Balcer entering the match led to a quick and dangerous opportunity for OLR as the match moved into the 70s, forcing Royals keeper Nicole Barnhart into a low diving save as the hydration break approached. Utah brought Diana Matheson into the match for the final stretch of the match, looking to try and grab a goal and the full three points.
Neither side looked to be playing for the single point in the final minutes, adding offense and pushing to open the play to create chances. Nicole Momiki brought immediate energy and danger to the Reign attack down the stretch. Bethany Balcer finally broke the deadlock and the Reign scoreless streak hitting the net at the beginning of stoppage time. Balcer, the 2019 ROY got a head on a Momiki cross to break the deadlock and alter the standings of the tournament. Balcer after the match, “We know we have all the right parts.”
Utah goes into match day four with a good sense of their attack and their defense and are certain to be a tough out in the elimination round. Utah has solid defensive shape and moves the ball through the midfield into attack steadily. Having a dangerous and in form striker like Rodriguez could give them an edge in their ability to create goals in the games that really matter. The result has to feel tough given how much of the play they controlled.
For OL Reign, the Cascadia derby finishes out their group phase slate. The derby at a neutral site is certain to have a significant social media presence, as it could be the only one of 2020 for the women or the men. However, the club still has many questions to be answered as to who they are in 2020. It will be interesting to see what line ups emerge for the next two match days. Can’t win if you don’t score. Getting one is great, but they cannot rely on stoppage time winners. Can’t lose if you don’t concede. Three points were a real reward for slogging through so much. However, if OLR keep this up, practicing spot kicks might be something they really need to focus on for upcoming elimination round matches.