The Sky Blue FC fans who stayed up late to watch their team’s first NWSL Challenge Cup game surely hoped that the team would play as high-scoring a contest as the three that preceded it in the tournament.
Alas, they got stuck with the event’s first scoreless draw. Neither Sky Blue nor OL Reign mustered all that many great chances until the game’s late stages.
The Reign — based in Tacoma, Wash., and owned by French club Lyon — had the better of the play early on, and it took 38 minutes for Sky Blue to get its first good chance. Ifeoma Onumonu jumped on a Reign turnover and ran away toward goal, but she blazed her shot well over the crossbar.
“I got just a little hasty,” Onumonu admitted after the game.
Nahomi Kawasumi came even closer in the 45th, trapping a terrific Sabrina Flores cross eight yards out and launching a shot that was blocked dramatically by a sliding Lauren Barnes.
Sky Blue came close again in the 70th when Kawasumi crossed from the left for Elizbeth Eddy. She shook off a defender and had a clear look at goal, but shot straight at Rutgers-bred Reign goalkeeper Casey Murphy.
At least the game had opened up, and Sky Blue had more momentum than it had all night. But it lasted for barely five minutes, because the Reign used a hydration break to make a trio of attacking substitutions.
Sky Blue countered with a 77th-minute double-substitution of their own that included withdrawing Margaret Purce, who lined up at right back. Among the players to enter was Evelyne Viens, a rookie forward who was the No. 5 pick in this year’s draft. She made her first charge forward in the 81st, with an incisive cut from the left flank the likes of which was missing for much of the night.
“It wasn’t part of the game plan to have the striker so isolated,” Sky Blue manager Freya Coombe said. “It was a credit to OL Reign for being able to push us back … We definitely need to get more support around our striker, whether it’s Evelyne or whether it’s Ify.”
At the other end, the Reign’s Jasmyne Spencer forced two big saves from Sheridan, including a point-blank dive in the 85th.
Over the course of the night, it became easy to see where Sky Blue’s two injured stars, Carli Lloyd and Mallory Pugh, would have fit in. And it was crystal-clear that McCall Zerboni is this team’s new midfield general. Her 65 touches were the third-most of the team on the night, and she had 2 shots, 3 tackles and completed 33 of 43 passes.
But the aforementioned lack of incisiveness nagged all night. If you wondered whether Purce could have helped, you aren’t alone.
Coombe defended her decision after the game, and the box score had receipts. Purce ranked second on the team in touches with 77 and completed 32 of 44 passes.
“She’s so valuable to us going forward and we want to put her in a position where she can go forward,” Coombe said of Purce, “but I think as well, being able to spring her from the back to support and get a numerical advantage in wide areas is advantageous for us. And we saw glimpses of it as she started to come into the game, and we’re looking to see much more from her in that position.”
And Purce didn’t complain about her assignment — only her performance.
“I was comfortable,” she said. “I’m not the happiest with my performance — I think that comes with the first games of the season. It’s been a few months since I’ve played in an actual game. So, yeah, it was fine.”
Coombe also noted that the absence of Imani Dorsey due to a head injury suffered in recent days factored into Purce’s role. General manager Alyse LaHue said before the game that Dorsey is “fine,” and keeping her out was a precautionary measure.
“You may see [Purce] in that [forward] role throughout this tournament, as we are able to bring in other players to complement her in the back line,” Coombe said.