In the fragmented 2020 season, all of the pieces finally came together for OL Reign on Saturday.
The club was able to score on its chances and defend just in time to close out its National Women’s Soccer League schedule with a 2-0 win against the Utah Royals FC at Cheney Stadium for its first win of the season. The result moved the Reign into seventh place in NWSL standings.
“We started off really strong,” Reign forward Sofia Huerta said during a video-conference call with media. She noted the club holding Portland to two penalty kicks in last week’s outing, although a 2-1 loss, built momentum for the Utah game.
“We were a different team and that carried over into this game,” Huerta continued. “We’re really happy with our result. We all wish we scored a few more goals, but 2-0 is good for us.”
The Reign underwent changes to their ownership, name, coaching staff and roster all before the schedule was shattered by the coronavirus pandemic. First-year coach Farid Benstiti was able to develop his team on and off the field by sequestering them for a month-long training camp in Montana last spring and planned to use competitions to test young talent and schemes.
Play was rusty at times. But the club displayed a better flow Saturday.
Midfielder Shirley Cruz helped open the scoring in the counter-attack, racing down the right side of the field with Huerta to her right. Cruz tapped the assist just outside the box to Huerta, the latter angling a right-footed shot into the goal in the 24th minute. It’s Huerta’s first goal with the Reign.
“Before the game, the team we were all laughing and joking, saying that it was my time to score,” Huerta said. “So, when Shirley played the ball and after I scored, I hugged Shirley and was like, ‘Thank you for passing me the ball!’ After the game she told me I owe her a beer for assisting to me.”
For the Reign’s second goal, forward Leah Pruitt was quick to use her first touch to set up a strike from inches outside the box to the upper-left corner of the net in the 51st minute. Pruitt, who was drafted by the North Carolina Courage last season, knocked home her first score with the Reign.
“I kind of blacked out,” Pruitt said during a video conference call with media. “I was just standing at the top of the box and took a touch in and shot it over the goalie. I was waiting to see if it was going to go over her head and it did. I was literally so happy because obviously I love scoring, and it was my first goal for the Reign.”
Royals keeper Abby Smith finished with nine saves as the Reign out-shot her side 11-5 in attempts on goal. Reign keeper Casey Murphy finished with five saves to get the clean sheet.
The Reign finished in a 2-2 draw against the Royals in Utah in September.
“It was a really good game,” Benstiti said during a video-conference call with media. “We were playing the same way against Portland the last game, but the difference is that we were more aggressive, more offensive. Even when we defended, we were offensive. We defended forward, we didn’t drop too much. When we were a little imbalanced, our four defenders were really well organized.”
The NWSL was the first pro sports league in the U.S. to play amid the pandemic. The return was with an eight-team Challenge Cup where those associated with the competition were sequestered outside of Salt Lake City last summer.
A Fall Series was later announced by NWSL. The nine teams formed regional groups that each played four games The Reign (1-2-1) lost to the Thorns twice and were unbeaten against the Royals (0-2-2).
Mainstay stars such as Megan Rapinoe, Jess Fishlock and Lu Barnes were unavailable for all or majority of the 2020 slate either due to opting out or the Reign loaning their rights to teams overseas that are playing more traditional seasons.
Young talent such as defender Madison Hammond and Pruitt plan to stay stateside during the offseason to work on their skills. Forward Bethany Balcer, the league’s 2019 Rookie of the Year, was called up to participate in the U.S. Women’s National Team’s training camp that starts Sunday.
“It was a difficult season,” Huerta said. “But everyone really brought their best at a time where it was hard to bring your best. So, it was a difficult year, but I’m really excited to get on to the 2021 season. I think we’re going to be really good.”