OL Reign forward Sofia Huerta didn’t want to say it, but there weren’t any other words.
Finishing another National Women’s Soccer League match with a clean sheet is usually an accomplishment. But in the quarterfinals of the league’s Challenge Cup on Saturday night, scoring was the ticket to continue playing.
The third-seeded OL Reign couldn’t find a goal in a scoreless regulation against the sixth-seeded Chicago Red Stars at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah. Tournament rules left the game to be decided on penalty kicks.
The Red Stars had no trouble knocking their attempts in, advancing to the semifinals with a 4-3 win in the shootout. Chicago will play the seventh-seeded Sky Blue FC on Wednesday. The eighth-seeded Portland Thorns FC will play the Houston Dash in the other semifinal.
“Basing a game off of PKs is not ideal,” Huerta said via live streaming video provided by NWSL. “I don’t think it’s fair.”
The future for the Reign (1-2-2) is uncertain, again. The club spent the past two months sequestered together first in Montana as it returned to training amid the coronavirus pandemic and then in Utah for the tournament. First-year coach Farid Benstiti said in a videoconference call with media after the match that he wanted to take the team to his native France, where the team’s ownership is from, to train, but U.S. residents aren’t permitted to travel there.
The league doesn’t have plans to resume a traditional season once its tournament ends with the championship match July 26.
When it came to the penalty kicks, Shirley Cruz opened with a miss and Red Stars veteran Julie Ertz drove home her club’s opening attempt to set the tone.
“We practiced some penalty kicks (Friday),” said Red Stars coach Rory Dames via videoconference. “We told them that we have the best goalkeeper in the world, so be confident with their shots because she (Alyssa Naeher) would get at least two (saves).”
Naeher had six saves in the match. But after a series of scores on the penalty kicks by the Reign, captain Lu Barnes needed to make hers to keep the club alive. She hit the post, ending the match.
“Our shooters did a great job, 4 for 4 takes a lot of weight off my shoulders,” said Naeher via live streaming video. “With the NWSL, the seedings don’t really mean anything. Everybody is competitive. Everybody is a challenge in a different way.”
In the first half, Chicago (2-2-1) was gifted multiple free kicks from tacky fouls committed by the Reign but didn’t connect.
The Reign had 60.5 percent possession of the ball and outshot the Red Stars 7-4 in the opening half. Midfielder Jess Fishlock had the best look when she beamed the ball at goal while crowded by Red Stars defenders. Naeher dived to tip the ball away from the net to prevent a score in the 31st minute.
Fishlock was in the starting lineup for the first time since tearing her ACL in June 2019. She returned to play as a substitute Monday. She missed the opening three Challenge Cup matches with right-leg pain.
Bethany Balcer substituted in for Fishlock in the 67th minute. There was question whether Balcer was going to play after saying in a Twitter post that she suffered a panic attack in Monday’s game. Balcer, the lone scorer for the Reign in the tournament with one goal, made her penalty kick before Barnes’ attempt.
In the second half, Reign defender Steph Cox connected with Huerta on a corner kick in the 59th minute. The latter rushed toward goal with a header, but Naeher knocked it down.
The Reign played without midfielders Morgan Andrews (left ankle) and Allie Long (right lower leg). Benstiti talked afterward about missing key players and possibly getting another striker for the club.
Reign striker Megan Rapinoe opted out of the tournament for personal reasons.
“We’re not going to keep our heads down,” Huerta said via live streaming. “We played well. We just needed to finish opportunities.”