For an ultimately meaningless game, the Chicago Red Stars and OL Reign sure put on a show. Both teams had already been knocked out of the tournament, but with this final game both teams came out to prove something. Let’s look at what happened.
The game started off quick with a 2nd minute shot from Danielle Colaprico at the top of the box, which was just barely pushed out wide by OL Reign goalkeeper Karen Bardsley. The Chicago Red Stars continued to push harder and harder on the attack, mostly led by Mallory Pugh, who started the game. After skying it over the bar in the 18th minute, Pugh finally got her first goal as a Red Star in the 39th minute as she turned around the Reign defender and buried it in the far corner. However, celebrations didn’t last long as a poor clearance from Tierna Davidson bounced off Sofia Huerta, landing for Megan Rapinoe. Rapinoe immediately played it back to Huerta who finished it off to level the game going into halftime.
The second half held the same intensity, but the chances were sparse early on. Huerta had another chance in the 55th minute when the ball landed for her outside the box on a free-kick, but that went just over the bar. By the 64th minute, the ball was firmly staying not just in the Reign’s end, but in their own box. Plays made by Casey Krueger and Sarah Gorden were dangerous, but not capitalized on. In the 70th minute, despite Chicago’s apparent advantage, the Reign took the ball back to the other end. Tziarra King drove to the byline, then laid it off for a wide open Leah Pruitt who finished it off. The Red Stars thought they’d leveled it back up in the 80th minute when Kealia Watt worked around a Reign defender for a strike to the back of the net, but she was called offside. The Reign added to their lead in the 87th minute when King fired a shot at the back post, surprising even herself as it went in. Chicago did get a single consolation goal in the 90th minute when Morgan Gautrat smacked a loose ball from outside the box on a corner, the first goal off of a set piece play for the Red Stars since March of 2018. The game ended 3-2 for the Reign.
Here are three things we learned from the Chicago Red Stars’ final game of the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup
Pugh Has Arrived
A big question going into the game was whether or not Mallory Pugh was actually ready to play yet. She had started the previous game against Kansas City, but she hasn’t been fully fit since she’s joined the Chicago Red Stars. Technically it seems like she wasn’t fully fit, being pulled out in the 66th minute, but she’s certainly playing like she is.
Pugh’s impact on the game was immense, basically taking the role of the “star striker” that the Red Stars have been missing all tournament. While she may not have been as clinical as she could have been, her movement and play in the final third helped reinvigorate an offense that needed a burst of energy.
For the first time in 2021, the Chicago Red Stars attack looked dangerous. And while it was a team effort, it didn’t feel dangerous until Mallory Pugh showed up.
Is Tierna Worth It?
This sounds like a really weird bad faith argument when she really just made one bad play, but hear me out. The Chicago Red Stars should look into trading Tierna Davidson. Her value to other teams in the league appears to be much higher than her value to the Red Stars. The Red Stars have an amazing arsenal of defenders and despite being a US Women’s National Team player, Tierna might not be one of the best options on defense.
Coach Rory Dames knows how to work out a deal and knows how much the rest of the NWSL values Tierna over the value she holds to Chicago. If there is any time to sell on this investment, it would be now. She likely will improve in the future, but so will the rest of the Red Stars young defenders on the bench. It’s only a matter of time until the right offer comes around and they should take it.
Is Officiating That Bad?
A conversation was started in one of the first games of the tournament when Meghan Klingenberg criticized NWSL officiating after the game between the Portland Thorns and Kansas City ended in a fight. She was fined for her comments, though the comments themselves weren’t actually that incendiary. However, we might need to take another look at her comments after this game due to a series of seemingly blown calls late in the game for the Chicago Red Stars.
In the 80th minute, Kealia Watt chipped a ball in that bounced off the post, landing in front of Julie Ertz who tried for a second chance effort. This was denied by a block from Amber Brooks, but not by any part of her body. Instead, on replay, her arm was clearly extended. It’s normal to get a call like this wrong in the run of play, but just moments later when Watt got a second chance for a shot, this time burying it, the play was blown dead due to an offside. Replay once again showed that the call was incorrect, with Watt right at the back of the defender marking her.
Talking about officiating is a clear sign of a defeated team, but it’s still incredibly unfortunate to see this level of officiating in what is supposed to be a world class league.