OL Reign coach Farid Benstiti’s excitement seeped through the screen as he met the media through a video conference call Wednesday after his team’s first victory in the National Women’s Soccer League Challenge Cup.
Moments earlier, he saw the team execute how he thought was possible when he relocated his family from France to Tacoma last winter. The offense was aggressive and the defense was impenetrable to collect a 1-0 win against the Utah Royals FC at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah.
The effort catapulted the Reign to third in the eight-team tournament standings with one preliminary-round match remaining.
“It’s happened, you know?” said Benstiti via live feed provided by NWSL. “It’s like you work and wow. You come on the field and you see your players (and) you’re happy for them and proud of them because when you are the coach, you see that they understood. It’s good for me. Really, really good.”
The Reign didn’t score in its opening two matches but broke that drought Wednesday morning. Benstiti made multiple adjustments to the starting lineup and didn’t shy from substitutions, utilizing the allotted five. He still wanted the team to play better in the box.
Against the Royals, he substituted Bethany Balcer into the match at center midfield in the 67th minute and put in newcomer, Nicole Momiki on the wing in the 81st minute. The pair connected in stoppage time to score for the Reign.
Momiki sent a left-footed cross into the box that was timed perfectly for Balcer to head into the goal.
“(The win) feels like a longtime coming,” said Balcer via a live-streaming video feed provided by NWSL. “The first two games we didn’t really show who exactly we are. So, it feels great this game to get the win.”
Balcer, the league’s 2019 Rookie of the Year, was a new look in the midfield for the Reign and it has helped her get more touches on the ball in the tournament. She said it’s the position she played in college at Spring Arbor University, a NAIA school in Michigan, and is her preferred spot on the field.
“She’s more of a second forward,” Benstiti said. “She was perfect today. And I’m very happy for her because she was sad (Tuesday at training) because I was not nice with her. … But I will be not nice with her. Today is not enough for me, again because she must repeat that because she could be an incredible player. But I’m happy for her.”
The Reign displayed their signature defense in recording their second shutout of the tournament. In goal was Michelle Betos, who played her first match since suffering a ruptured Achilles tendon in May 2019.
Betos played her first match since her father, Luke, died last spring. Michelle had five saves against Utah (1-1-1), which entered the match scoring four goals by four different players.
Last season, Betos had one shutout in four starts before the injury.
“It was definitely an intense game,” Reign defender Celia Jimenez Delgado said via live streaming video provided by NWSL. “(Defensively) we just wanted to be compact. They play with two forwards, so obviously that’s going to put a lot of problems on our center backs. But the outside players were tucked in, compact and didn’t allow much gain through the middle. … We got the clean sheet, so it worked.”
The Reign (1-1-1) will conclude preliminary-round play against their rival Portland Thorns FC on Monday at 9:30 a.m. PT. The Challenge Cup knockout stage begins July 17 with the championship match set for July 26 at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah.
“We talked about changing our attitude on the field,” Benstiti said as translated from French via live streaming video feed provided by NWSL. “I think that was the essence of the game today.”