NWSL Challenge Cup takeaways: Tziarra King rules for OL Reign; Gotham FC first in East

The fourth week of the National Women’s Soccer League second annual Challenge Cup is in the books, and the results have shaken the up East division standings. Gotham FC hosted Washington Spirit, while OL Reign cranked up their attack and earned their first goals and win of the tournament. Here’s what stood out over the matches.

1. Gotham FC lead the East.

A scoreless draw against Washington Spirit on Tuesday gave Gotham FC seven points and top positioning in the Challenge Cup East division standings. 

Head coach Freya Coombe and her team now have one match remaining to lock up the top spot ahead of the 2019 NWSL champions North Carolina Courage, who currently sit in second place with six points and one more fixture remaining against Orlando Pride.

“To walk away from here with a clean sheet and a point with the position of the table for the Challenge Cup, we’re still in a good spot and in a good place going into our final game,” Coombe said postgame. “For us to be this team that is going to go on and whether its competing in the Challenge Cup final , whether its compete and have a run at playoffs, whether its competing for a championship, we have to be able to win games when the pressure is on . . . that’s the only way we’re going to develop and be the team that wins championships.”

2. Spirit and Gotham developing their attacks.

The 2021 Challenge Cup has offered a look at clubs as they continue to build on their tactics, and despite a scoreless draw between the Spirit and Gotham FC on Tuesday, there were multiple looks in the final third. The visiting Spirit out-shot Gotham FC, 19-13 attempts, though the attempts on target weren’t quite up to par.

Both the Spirit and Gotham were each denied by the goal post as Gotham attempted to threaten on counters and the Spirit tried to attack the space against the host defensive block. Midge Purce nearly broke through on goal early in the match with this strike in the seventh minute.

Spirit forward Ashley Hatch has been working her way back into the squad’s top line, and almost exposed some space in the box on a header off a free kick opportunity in the opening five minutes of the second half.

The scoreless draw means Washington Spirit are now eliminated from Challenge Cup contention, and close out their tournament with four points and a 1-1-2 record.

3. Tziarra is King.

OL Reign made a trade during the offseason with Kansas City that sent Tziarra King to the Reign. Her impact off the bench for the Tacoma side was significant during their match against the Chicago Red Stars. OL Reign had scoring struggles of their own ahead of this match, looking disjointed at times during their previous games while trying to execute their tactics. 

King, after subbing on at halftime for Megan Rapinoe, assisted on Leah Pruitt’s go-ahead goal for the home side. After some chaotic winding minutes, King delivered what was ultimately the game-deciding goal in the 87th minute despite a 90th-minute goal from Chicago shortly thereafter. 

4. Mal Pugh could be the answer to Chicago’s blues.

Despite a 3-2 loss to close out their Challenge Cup journey, the Chicago Red Stars’ layered attack had signs of life in their final Challenge Cup match. Acquired in the offseason, Pugh has been working her way back to form with Chicago, playing 30 minutes against Kansas City, and putting 65 minutes in against OL Reign. 

The team has been trying to iron out their offense since last year’s Challenge Cup and Fall Series fixtures, operating with a platoon of forward options, instead of one set target. The options show promise, with Kealia Watt constantly working her way into dangerous spaces, and midfielders getting more heavily involved in the attack. The breakthrough on goal for the Red Stars finally arrived by way of Mexican international Katie Johnson during their previous match, though a forward with a constant engine outside of Watt to pester backlines appeared to be missing. 

Pugh’s efforts, however, paid off as she opened her scoring account with Chicago during the first half off a sideline throw in. 

The Red Stars went 0-2-2 in the 2021 Challenge Cup.

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