TACOMA — Walking off the Cheney Stadium field Saturday night with cramps in both legs, it wasn’t hard for Lu Barnes to comprehend playing in her 150th NWSL match.

It’s still a number that startled the OL Reign defender. Especially when teammate Jess Fishlock organized having Barnes’ mother and brother travel from California for a prematch surprise ceremony. The game against the North Carolina Courage capped an opening day for the league entering its ninth season.

Barnes reflected on how most days she wondered if the Women’s Professional Soccer league would survive, it eventually folding in 2012. She worked as an assistant coach at the University of California, Riverside, before the Reign first signed her in 2013.

Saturday, Barnes shifted to a newer position at left back, helping the club close out a scoreless draw against the Courage before 2,104 fans. The Reign debuted a vaccinated section along with socially distanced seating.

“Every time I put this jersey on, there’s something special about it,” Barnes said. “Me and Jess (Fishlock) have built this club for the last nine years, so we take a lot of pride in what we do.”

Saturday’s meeting with North Carolina was a rematch of the 2019 NWSL semifinals. The Reign was level with the Courage headed into extra time but conceded three goals in the eventual 4-1 loss. The Courage advanced and ultimately won the league championship.

Advertising

North Carolina has won eight of the 11 matches between the sides.

But that was gibberish to Barnes and Fishlock in a postgame interview. Although the club is still nicknamed The Bold, there’s a new shield, majority owners, coach in Farid Benstiti and crop of youthful players who weren’t part of the devastating playoff loss.

Technically there was also a lost season. NWSL returned to play amid the pandemic with a Challenge Cup tournament and four-match Fall Series in 2020. Saturday’s season opener was the first since 2019.

“So much has happened since that game,” Fishlock said of the semifinal match. “We just got in the huddle and Farid was like, ‘This is officially my first actual game.’ He’s been here for two years. That’s how crazy it’s been. So, yeah, that semifinal was not on our minds at all.

“We were focused on us, what we want to do, how we want to play. I think you saw that tonight. That’s why we’re really proud of our start in the NWSL as OL Reign.”

The Courage (0-0-1) started early with the offensive pressure. Team captain Abby Erceg had a shot hit the crossbar in the 2nd minute.

Advertising

Benstiti played with a new lineup due to injuries to midfielders Quinn and Shirley Cruz. Another immediate change was needed when Celia Jimenez Delgado left the field in the 24th minute with what Benstiti said was a hamstring injury.

The Bold played with two midfielders in Fishlock and Dani Weatherholt, which flowed well but didn’t help to create many chances in the opening half.

Strikers Megan Rapinoe and Bethany Balcer substituted on in the second half and the Reign pressured Courage keeper Casey Murphy.

Reign forward Leah Pruitt had two good looks from the right side of the box early on in the second half. Both shots brushed outside the net.

Rapinoe had a solid shot clank off the post in the 69th minute. In the 76th minute, Fishlock played a solid first touch to breakaway with a dribble straight at goal. Murphy was way outside the box and able to tip away the scoring threat.

Murphy finished with three saves.

Reign keeper Karen Bardsley was equally impressive in goal with five saves. The most daring was in the 57th minute on North Carolina forward Kristen Hamilton’s shot at goal. Bardsley punched the ball over the net for the save.

Advertising

“We are a little frustrated because when you have two or three chances, you expect one to be a goal,” Benstiti said. “But it was not.”

Barnes, who wore the captain’s armband, took the performance as a positive step, even if it was a little painful because of leg cramps. The Reign (0-0-1) will travel to play their Cascadia rival Portland Thorns FC on May 23 at Providence Park.

“What a game to start with,” Barnes said. “We want to play the best and North Carolina has proven that they have been the best for years now. To have this start sets the standards high and we just need to continue to grow from there.”