NWSL Challenge Cup Preview: Chicago Red Stars vs OL Reign

HERRIMAN, UTAH - JULY 18: Sofia Huerta #20 of OL Reign defends Bianca St Georges #29 of Chicago Red Stars during the quarterfinal match of the NWSL Challenge Cup at Zions Bank Stadium on July 18, 2020 in Herriman, Utah. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
HERRIMAN, UTAH - JULY 18: Sofia Huerta #20 of OL Reign defends Bianca St Georges #29 of Chicago Red Stars during the quarterfinal match of the NWSL Challenge Cup at Zions Bank Stadium on July 18, 2020 in Herriman, Utah. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images) /

In their final match of the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup, the Chicago Red Stars will travel to Seattle to face off against OL Reign. Both teams have struggled in their previous matches in the Challenge Cup and will definitely have something to prove here.

As for absences, there aren’t any updates for the Chicago Red Stars, who said they had a clean bill of health ahead of their last game aside from those with long-term injuries from last year (Bianca St. Georges, Alyssa Mautz, Emily Boyd). However, Mallory Pugh was still taken off during the Kansas City game only 35 minutes in after starting. She might still be dealing with lingering issues. OL Reign’s major reports are mostly on the defensive end. Defensive midfielder Allie Long was listed as just questionable against Portland with a lower leg injury, but did not make the 20. On the other hand, center back Lauren Barnes has been on the bench for the past two games, but has not seen the pitch in either match. Both should technically be ready for this match, but judging by the way they’ve been used recently it’s a toss-up.

Here are three things to watch out for:

Get in Line

Of all the two biggest problems the Chicago Red Stars have, the less frustrating one is the fact that they have too many good players on defense. Last week, I mentioned that it was uncertain where they could place Julie Ertz in the lineup, whether it be in the midfield or the defensive line. This leads to another question: What is the best defensive line for the Red Stars?

Last week, coach Rory Dames put Julie Ertz in the midfield, leaving Sarah Gorden and Tierna Davidson at center back, with Casey Krueger and Arin Wright as fullbacks. But considering all the players available to the Red Stars as well as their best positions, that might not be the best possible defense. Wright has proven to be a solid attacking winger and the defense is much more stable with Ertz back there to help. And outside of those players, Bianca St Georges still has a claim on that right back position from last year.

At least this is one problem that is good to have.

Full Strength

The Chicago Red Stars aren’t the only team that benefits from returning national team players. OL Reign limited their returning players to about a half hour of time out on the pitch, but with more rest it should be expected that they’ll be playing a lot more in this coming matchup. And the Red Stars should be very concerned.

The two big returning names are Megan Rapinoe and Jess Fishlock. Rapinoe is an obvious game changer, having won so many accolades that it’d just be boring to list them off. She’s good. We get it. She’ll start. The interesting player of the two is Jess Fishlock. I don’t think she’s going to start. Why? Because she is best played as a sub after the 60th minute. The moment she steps onto the pitch, the entire Reign attack is transformed and gets a shot of energy. In fact, of the two, I think that she’s the more dangerous for the Red Stars, testing the endurance of their defense.

What Are You Fighting For?

With the Portland Thorns clinching this side of the bracket in the NWSL Challenge Cup, neither team is really playing for any reason. There’s the old saying about Poland in the World Cup: “First match is for points, second for everything, and the third one for honor.” You want to win the first game to get a good start. Failing to win that one means you need to win the second one to stay in contention. And failing to win in the second game means that all you have left is to fight for pride.

The Chicago Red Stars have scored a single goal in three games. They’ve only given up two goals in those three games, but it also means that they haven’t won a game. There was no NWSL Cup last season, so they are still the last runners-up of the competition, so they need to act like it. So far, the Red Stars seem harmless, with a lot of noise but not a lot of action. It’s disappointing to see and they should feel disappointed. This is the final game of the tournament and they need to show something for it. Just a single win would be nice.

Projected XI

Chicago Red Stars (4-3-3): Alyssa Naeher; Casey Krueger, Sarah Gorden, Julie Ertz, Tierna Davidson; Danielle Colaprico, Morgan Gautrat, Vanessa DiBernardo; Arin Wright, Katie Johnson, Kealia Watt

OL Reign (4-2-3-1): Karen Bardsley; Celia Jimenez, Amber Brooks, Madison Hammond, Stephanie Cox; Shirley Cruz, Quinn; Megan Rapinoe, Angelina Alonso, Sofia Huerta; Bethany Balcer

How To Watch

Tuesday, April 27th, 9:00 PM CDT; At Cheney Stadium in Tacoma, WA, online on Paramount+ and Twitch (foreign markets only)