all scores

Reign motivated to win Challenge Cup trophy amid scheduling challenges

OL Reign's Ally Watt (Jane Gershovich/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

When the OL Reign clinched the top seed for the 2022 Challenge Cup playoffs, their “reward” wasn’t enviable by any standards. After opening their regular season against the Washington Spirit on Sunday, the Reign will play three games in one week without home-field advantage.

Three days after the Spirit defeated the Reign 2-1, the teams meet again Wednesday night in the Challenge Cup semifinals in Washington, D.C. Both sides will also take the field again this weekend, either in the Challenge Cup final or their second regular season game. Whichever team makes the championship game on Saturday will need to reschedule its regular season match. The Reign are currently slated to play Racing Louisville FC at home, and the Spirit are supposed to visit the Chicago Red Stars.

Based on the current format, the scheduling conflicts and travel adventures are inevitable for the teams that advance to the Challenge Cup knockout stage.

“The crossover is something a lot of us were feeling is unfair, and we’re just wondering why anyone thought this was a great idea,” Reign attacker Ally Watt told Just Women’s Sports on Friday. “[Louisville’s] like, ‘OK, so are we coming this weekend, or are you guys busy?’ Why is this a conversation we have to run into? It’s just really bad. We’ll take it game by game, but it just sucks to be put in that position.”

While the Challenge Cup gives teams an opportunity to test formations and try out players in different positions, each club also sets out to win the preseason tournament.

“That’s a goal we have, and we worked really hard for it and we were in a good position to possibly do it, but now we’re put in another position where we’re not in a great position to do it because we have to play all these other games,” Watt said.

The Reign will also have to get through the Spirit in front of an opposing crowd to have a chance at the Challenge Cup trophy. Lumen Field, the Reign’s home stadium, is unavailable for the game because the MLS’ Seattle Sounders are hosting the second leg of their CONCACAF Champions League final on the same night.

“We worked so hard to get the No. 1 seed, and now we don’t even get to [host] it,” Watt said.

Even Audi Field, the stadium the Spirit and D.C. United share, was originally unavailable because of a scheduling conflict with the Project Play Summit, pushing the semifinal game to the 5,000-seat Segra Field. In collaboration with the Aspen Institute and the teams, the NWSL announced last week that the game would be relocated to Audi Field, which can seat 20,000, with the summit taking place in the lead-up to kickoff. NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman is scheduled to speak at the event.

Now hours away from the match, the Reign have put their frustrations behind them.

“At the end of the day, I think there are so many things out of your control, and scheduling just is not in our control unfortunately,” said defender Sofia Huerta. “Everyone at one point probably has to deal with an unfortunate few games … The only thing we have on our minds is tomorrow’s game and winning the semifinals so we can bring the trophy back to Lumen.”

The Reign, who lost to the Spirit 2-1 in last year’s NWSL semifinal, will be hungry for vengeance. Despite consistently being one of the top teams in the league, they haven’t defeated Washington since 2018.

But when the Spirit are in the right mindset, they’re unbeatable. Since head coach Kris Ward took the helm on Aug. 7, Washington hasn’t lost, including in the NWSL championship last year and in Sunday’s regular season opener against the Reign.

The Reign nearly took an early lead when the Spirit conceded a penalty kick in the ninth minute. Washington goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe then saved Rose Lavelle’s shot, kickstarting the Spirit, who scored five minutes later on their way to winning 2-1.

“It’s just a testament to the players and that mentality that they have,” said Ward. “Any situation, whether they’ve been up or down in score, up or down a player on the field, dealing with difficult decisions, whatever it is, they’ve always responded so well.”

The other semifinal will feature the North Carolina Courage and the Kansas City Current on Wednesday at Children’s Mercy Park. The Courage and Current didn’t have to deal with the same scheduling headaches, but they are also mixed up in the regular-season crossover. If the Courage advance to the final, they would have to reschedule their Saturday game against the Portland Thorns, while the Current would need to move their game Sunday against the Houston Dash.

The teams also head into the semifinal on short rest after playing their regular season openers on the West Coast. The Courage had just two full days in North Carolina between returning from their match Friday night against Angel City and leaving for Kansas City on Tuesday.

“At the end of the day it’s the situation that we earned, to be in this spot,” said Courage head coach Sean Nahas. “Whether or not I agree with how it’s scheduled, that’s not for me to debate.”

Washington and OL Reign play in the first semifinal at 8 p.m. ET on Wednesday on CBS Sports Network, followed by Kansas City and North Carolina at 8:30 p.m. ET on Paramount+ and Twitch.

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.