TACOMA — It’s been 19 months, and everything has changed.
Well, except for the purple hair. Megan Rapinoe was one of the easier OL Reign players to spot Tuesday because she’s retained that hair color since she last played while wearing the club’s crest.
The rest? Cheney Stadium was configured to fit one-sixth of its capacity due to safety protocols regarding the coronavirus pandemic. When Rapinoe was last at Cheney, about 7,500 people were stuffed into a facility designed to fit about 6,500 for minor-league baseball games.
ESPN also had its cameras tucked in corners to nationally broadcast the Bold’s season finale against the Portland Thorns FC that September 2019. Paramount and Twitch streamed Tuesday’s game against the Chicago Red Stars.
And Rapinoe, her entire team and most of the Chicago club kneeled while the national anthem played. Rapinoe was alone and scrutinized when she started to kneel in 2016 in protest of police brutality and social injustices. The May 2020 killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minnesota officer was a tipping point for a global racial reckoning that included the Reign.
All it took were rousing cheers from the socially distanced crowd of 1,105 to make it seem like Rapinoe never left. The forward made her first NWSL start since 2019, helping collect a 3-2 win in the Challenge Cup tournament.
“It was a whirlwind,” Reign center back Madison Hammond said of the match during a video conference call with media.
It was actually Rapinoe being substituted out of the match at halftime that broke open the scoring for the Reign. Forward Tziarra King, an offseason pickup from the former Utah Royals FC, had a goal and an assist to star for the Reign.
Forward Leah Pruitt booted in the Reign’s go-ahead goal in the 70th minute. King hustled to set up the score, chasing the ball to the end line before cutting back to get the pass to Pruitt.
King dribbled to create her own score in the 87th minute to make Chicago midfielder Morgan Gautrat’s goal in stoppage time insignificant.
“When I tell you I shocked myself, I said, ‘Oh, my God!’ ” King said during a video conference call with media. “I was so hyped. That third goal obviously sealed it for us, so I’m hyped that I was able to provide that for our team.
“It feels good coming into this new environment. Being able to play my role and do what I need to do for this team is my goal. So, being able to do that today felt awesome.”
The Red Stars (0-2-2) immediately put pressure on the Reign’s defense. The visitors had four attempts in the opening 20 minutes of the match.
Chicago forward Mallory Pugh broke the deadlock. She whipped a score past Reign keeper Karen Bardsley in the 38th minute. It was her first of the season.
The Bold (1-1-1) didn’t take long to respond. Midfielder Jess Fishlock collected a deflected pass and timed her touch to slip through the Chicago defense for a sprinting Sofia Huerta. The latter sliced the ball past Red Stars keeper Alyssa Naeher for the equalizer in the 41st minute.
Huerta’s score was also the Reign’s first goal of the 2021 campaign. The Reign was the last NWSL team to notch a goal this season.
The Reign had another solid attempt in the 55th minute but spent the majority of the second half defending its goal. Hammond and Bold fullback Lu Barnes each had key blocks and deflections to keep the match level until Pruitt’s score.
Hammond said the defensive line wasn’t happy about Gautrat’s score, however.
“We grind the entire game, and to get the third goal was amazing,” said Hammond, who got the ball to King in the box. “It felt like we sealed it and we’ve just got to lock it down. To have a really scrappy goal go in is a bit deflating, but I think that it’ll be good for us in the long run. When you go up really late, you’ve got to lock it down.”
There was a tense moment in the 56th minute when Fishlock collided with three Chicago defenders. The midfielder curled into a ball on the field until a trainer was called. Blood dripped from her face as she rose and walked to the sideline to be treated. She was substituted out of the match for Nicole Momiki in the 71st minute.
Portland (3-0) won the West Division of the tournament with a shutout win against the Reign last week. The Thorns will play the East winner on May 8 for the Challenge Cup title.
The Reign will finish tournament play May 3 on the road against Kansas City. The NWSL opens its regular-season slate May 15.
Concerns about the pandemic kept Rapinoe from competing in the NWSL and for the U.S. women’s national team since March 2020. She missed the club’s 2021 opener April 16 due to competing with the USWNT overseas.
U.S. Soccer has limited Rapinoe’s play, Reign coach Farid Benstiti not starting her against Portland and substituting King in for the Olympian at halftime Tuesday.
“We’re just building momentum, and this game was a pivotal piece in us building that confidence and that trust in each other,” King said. “From here we continue to snowball and get better and better.”