Facing what likely felt akin to a must-win game, despite guaranteed advancement to the knockouts, the Portland Thorns took on OL Reign in the final preliminary round of the 2020 Challenge Cup on Monday morning. The teams have a storied history and are part of the most prominent NWSL rivalry, dubbed the Cascadia Clash due to their geographic location in the Pacific Northwest. But for the first time, the match, typically played in an electric atmosphere with thousands of fans, was set in a near-empty stadium surrounded by the mountains of Utah.
OL Reign entered the match with 4 points, while the Thorns, perennially at the top of the NWSL standings, were in last place with only 2 points. Portland also entered the game without a win dating all the way back to September 21, 2019, making them winless in the previous six games. Portland was without Emily Menges and Becky Sauerbrunn, forcing Kelli Hubly to step into a center back spot. Sophia Smith is still sidelined, and player of the tournament in terms of work rate and consistency so far, Lindsey Horan, sat out due to a left hip injury. Postgame, Mark Parsons said he is hopeful that the team will have Menges and Horan back for the quarterfinals. On the availability list for the first time this tournament for the Reign were Sophia Huerta, acquired in a trade from Houston in the off-season, and Jess Fishlock, returning from ACL repair.
Following the initial shot on goal by OL Reign, which was saved by up-and-coming backup goalkeeper Bella Bixby, Reign struggled to get out of their defensive half for the first 40 minutes of the match. The team would break the initial line of pressure, but as Portland’s mids dropped quickly, the increased Thorns numbers behind the ball would inevitably lead to Reign turnover after Reign turnover, and another Thorns attack. This left last year’s Rookie of the Year and proven goal-scorer, Bethany Balcer, basically playing defense for her team. Balcer would be subbed out soon after the first hydration break, and she later revealed that she was having difficulty breathing due to anxiety. While we, at home, are enjoying the Challenge Cup on television, we also must recognize that this is an incredibly challenging environment that the players have entered, both physically and mentally.
While Portland controlled much of the first half, with an average of 8 Thorns beyond the midfield line compared to OL Reign’s one, similar to the rest of the prelims, the Thorns had very few dangerous chances on goal. OL Reign played with a complete lack of energy until the waning minutes of the first half. In the final five minutes, Reign had a couple of good looks on goal, by Sophia Huerta, making her debut for the team, and Taylor Smith, subbed on for Balcer. These attempts forced great saves from Bixby. Goalkeeping has been a bright spot for the Thorns, with Bixby, and the Reign, with the return of Michelle Betos from ACL injury, while both teams continue to struggle to finish in the offensive third.
Coming out of the break, Portland started the second half on the front foot with a good look on goal. After that, the game opened up. One of the best opportunities for the Reign came in the 61st minute, when a defensive miscue allowed Smith to get a look on goal. Her low driven shot went wide of the post by inches. Thorns rookie and second overall draft pick Morgan Weaver had an excellent game before being subbed out in stoppage time, but she seems hesitant to pull the trigger, looking for teammates to set up rather than having a go herself. Weaver did create a beautiful scoring threat in the 70th minute, slotting a diagonal ball back to midfielder and Costa Rican international Rocky Rodriguez at the top of the box. Rodriguez had her shot deflected by Betos. On the ensuing play, Weaver found captain Christine Sinclair, whose shot was blocked for a corner. Three minutes later, in a much anticipated NWSL return to the Reign, Welsh star Jess Fishlock stepped onto the field for the first time in 13 months, and was able to finish out the game.
Frustration was apparent on some of the Thorns faces as the game wore on. The team pressed to find more offense late in the match, but Reign was able to effectively keep Portland pinned in their defensive end. Despite the disappointing tie that sets up a rematch against two-time defending champions, the North Carolina Courage, in the quarterfinals, Portland Coach Mark Parsons remains positive. He feels the team has grown and is in a better position than they ended the 2019 season, but he does acknowledge their finishing troubles. Parsons said the word of the tournament for his team is shoot. Even without Horan, the team looked surprisingly energetic and organized, particularly in the first half, and it does beg the question had the Thorns played with this intensity in their second and third preliminary matches, would they be at the bottom of the table now?
With the tie, the Thorns remain in last place and will face off against the North Carolina Courage on Friday, July 17th, at 12:30 pm EST, in a rematch of the opening game of the Cup. OL Reign finished third and will line up against the Chicago Red Stars, another team struggling on the offensive side of the ball, on Saturday, July 18th, at 10:00 pm EST in the cap of the quarterfinals.
By Nikki Flores
Photo Credit: Nikki Flores @ Footy Day Photos