Midway through the return to soccer, OL Reign midfielder Allie Long had a message for team.
“Just calm down a little,” Long said of the pace in their National Women’s Soccer League Challenge Cup opener Tuesday. The racing feeling ended in a scoreless draw with the Sky Blue FC at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah.
“I was proud of us,” Long said. “We just need to be a little bit better in front of goal. We could’ve scored a couple of goals today. But I was really proud of the overall team performance, really good.”
The league became the first of U.S. pro sports to return amid the coronavirus pandemic, holding a 23-game tournament. The Reign and Sky Blue became the first unable to score a goal.
Neither club was overly aggressive to start the evening match. They had seven shots each in the opening half. The Reign’s best chance was in the 19th minute when defender Kristen McNabb had a strong, left-footed shot outside the box nestle into Sky Blue keeper Kailen Sheridan’s arms.
Sky Blue midfielder Nahomi Kawasumi, a former Reign star, had a shot in the 45th thwarted at the mouth of the goal by defender Lu Barnes. The latter recovered in transition, slid and blocked the ball.
In the second half, Jasmyne Spencer had the Reign’s best chance in the 85th minute. The quick forward broke loose to get a right-footed shot off unmarked in the box. Sheridan dove to her right to make the save, totaling four in the match.
Spencer substituted into the match in the 76th minute. She missed last season due to a torn ACL.
“I hate tying,” Sky Blue defender Margaret “Midge” Purce said. “We had some promising moments. …We’re going to do well as the tournament progresses.”
The NWSL made one adjustment after its return to play Saturday. The league gave clubs the option to participate in the pre-match national anthem or stay in their locker room.
The change was after images from the globally televised match between the North Carolina Courage and Portland Thorns were picked apart for who did or didn’t kneel in support of the Black Live Matter movement. NWSL said conversations were had between players around the league, as well as club officials and stakeholders.
“The NWSL stands behind every player, official and staff member,” league commissioner Lisa Baird said in a released statement Monday. “Kneel on the field. Stand with your hand over your heart. Honor your feelings in the privacy of the locker room or at midfield. The NWSL is a league that was built on diversity and courage and those principles will continue to drive us forward.”
Like the previous matches, OL Reign and Sky Blue players wore Black Lives Matter warm-up T-shirts and armbands. The entire club for both sides and officials also linked arms and kneeled together, one opting to stand.
There was also a moment of silence before kickoff where the starting XI for both sides kneeled, Purce appearing to cry.
Reign midfielder Jess Fishlock was unavailable for selection due to a lower right leg injury reported Monday. Fishlock tore her left ACL in July 2019 and said prior to departing for Utah that she felt completely healed from that injury.
Forward Sofia Huerta was a late scratch for the Reign due to an undisclosed injury. OL Reign coach Farid Benstiti said it was minor and she could play later in the tournament.
The Sky Blue was without key players in defender Caprice Dydasco (right knee), midfielder Carli Lloyd (left Knee), forward Mallory Pugh (right hip) and midfielder Madison Tiernan (right ankle).
The Reign had a month-long training in Missoula before the tournament. The Tacoma-based club had to use the facilities at the University of Montana due to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s restrictions to guard against the spread of the virus outbreak.
The Challenge Cup was cut to eight teams after the Orlando Pride pulled out due to six players and four staff members testing positive for COVID-19. All of those involved with the tournament in Utah are tested frequently and sequestered for the month-long tournament.
The Reign continues its preliminary round play Saturday against the Houston Dash.