One thing is certain after the Cascadia derby: Even in the early morning, without fans and on a neutral field and nearly 1,000 miles away from its usual location, a match between OL Reign and Portland Thorns FC is still intense.
The 2020 edition was part of the National Women’s Soccer League’s Challenge Cup and ended in a scoreless draw Monday morning at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah.
The goalless match — played with fans only visible on massive live streaming screens due to the global coronavirus pandemic — is a first since May 2016 and just the second scoreless draw in the seven-year series, but moves the Reign’s unbeaten streak against the Thorns to four. The outcome also kept the Reign from finishing last in the eight-team tournament, avoiding a matchup with the two-time defending NWSL champion NC Courage in the knockout rounds.
The Reign will next face the Chicago Red Stars on Saturday at 7 p.m. PT in a quarterfinal match. The game will be streamed on the paid streaming service CBS All Access.
“We knew we just didn’t want to lose and that’s the type of game that you saw,” Reign midfielder Jess Fishlock said via live streaming video provided by NWSL. “We have to add something more to our game and we know that. …That’s the next level we have to go to.”
Fishlock made her tournament debut in the 73rd minute. She missed the three previous preliminary-round matches due to a lower right leg pain. The injury suffered during training stalled her comeback from a torn ACL that happened in a match in June 2019.
Before the injury, Fishlock was the league’s Player of the Month for June. The honor was because she scored three goals and had one assist for her club in her return from helping Olympique Lyonnais win the UEFA Champions League in May 2019.
Fishlock picked up where she left off, although out of position at the striker slot Monday. She still worked the midfield to serve teammate Taylor Smith a through ball in the 81st minute that could’ve been a statement goal. But Smith was flagged offside.
“Our whole plan this tournament was to not rush me into the games (especially) on turf,” Fishlock said of the artificial field via live streaming video provided by NWSL. “It was just about getting minutes at the right time and coming in at (forward) was about being tactical. We wanted to be able to put a little bit more pressure higher up.”
But, in not wanting to lose, the Reign instead was again pinned back in front of its own goal for seemingly the majority of the game. Yet, the stats show an even match in Portland having a slight edge in shots on-target (4-3) and 54.9 percent possession of the ball.
Thorns midfielder Raquel Rodriguez had the strongest attempts when she sent straight-on shots at Reign keeper Michelle Betos in the 70th and 89th minute. Betos, who was in goal for the last goalless match, finished with four saves.
“At this point we’re struggling to put the ball in the back of the net,” Thorns striker Christine Sinclair said via video live streaming provided by NWSL of her team, which hasn’t won a match in the tournament. “Some of our strikers can hit the ball so well and they seem a little hesitant to pull the trigger and our final third execution in terms of crosses was not good enough. There were a few times where we had more numbers than (Reign) in the box but we managed to find their goalkeeper behind the net. At this level, it’s not good enough.”
Through 40 minutes of the opening, the Thorns were 5-1 in shot attempts but nearly split with ball possession. The Reign didn’t become a real threat in scoring until first-half stoppage time when Sofia Huerta and Smith had near-chances outside the box.
Smith was an early Reign substitution made in the 40th minute for Bethany Balcer. The league’s 2019 Rookie of the Year posted after the match on her Twitter account that she suffered from a panic attack.
In the same post, Balcer suspects it’s anxiety-related and said the same thing happened to her last year during the NWSL playoffs. On Monday, she was shown on the broadcast to be gasping for air on the sideline and wrote later that she was able to lower her heart rate after an hour passed.
“Keep all the players in your thoughts cuz it’s really, really tough to stay mentally sharp and healthy in an environment like this one,” Balcer wrote in the Twitter post.
The Reign has been sequestered together since June when the team began full-team training in Montana. The players have been in the Salt Lake City area since June 27. Teams are tested frequently, unable to have family and friends with them and have limited contact with those outside their travel delegation.
“I know for me, I have hit an emotional wall and it sucks cuz it affects how you play no matter how hard you try to push through it,” Balcer wrote in the Twitter post. “I’m breathing okay now, but conversations are exhausting to have. Looking forward to lots of rest in the next few days. Super proud of this team — onto the quarters!”
Huerta, an offseason trade pickup from the Houston Dash, made her Reign debut Monday. She suffered a right hamstring injury during training.
“I felt good mentally and physically,” Huerta said. “I maybe could’ve gotten a goal or two and our team could’ve finished some opportunities. We finish opportunities in practice all the time, we need to get them going in the games.”
With Fishlock capping the return of last season’s injury-plagued roster that included Betos (Achilles) and Taylor (knee) among others, Reign coach Farid Benstiti said his new problem is settling on a starting lineup headed into the knockout rounds. Despite injuries, the Reign advanced to the postseason and lost in stoppage time to the Courage in 2019.
“It’s a good problem for me,” he said. “I have choices.”