Reign FC fought its way to a 2-1 win over Utah Royals FC at home Wednesday night, stoking the fire of their playoff aspirations and all but dousing their opponent’s. Goals from Bethany Balcer and Jodie Taylor got the job done offensively, a crafty defensive performance with a standout night from Casey Murphy proved the difference as the club took three points at home.
“I thought it was a very good game from a tactical perspective,” Reign FC head coach Vlatko Andonovski said. “I think we had a good plan and we executed it so well. It was great to see that it worked and that we ended up winning. I think that from the first whistle we knew exactly how much possession we were going to allow them to have—we call it a ‘fake possession’—we knew which areas we wanted to attack and which areas we wanted to create opportunities. At the end, I’m glad it paid off.”
The back line consisted of a centerback pairing of Lauren Barnes and Rebecca Quinn, with Steph Catley on the left and Celia Jiménez Delgado on the right. Catley and Barnes are defensive mainstays who have combined for 33 starts this season. Quinn, meanwhile, played her first minutes of the year as a centerback in a loss to Sky Blue FC on September 21, while Jiménez Delgado made her fifth start of the season and first since August 11 at right back.
Ahead of the club’s most important match of the season, Andonovski deployed a back line that had never started a match together.
Quinn started over Megan Oyster, who was listed as questionable with a left knee injury and ably fulfilled her role. Quinn completed 35 of her 49 passes, many of which switched the field to the left sideline for a charging Catley or Darian Jenkins in space and made one key pass. Defensively, the Canadian made nine recoveries and won her lone tackle of the match.
Andonovski praised the versatility of Quinn, who normally deploys as a midfielder.
“I think Quinn looked like she was playing chess,” Andonovski said. “She was so smooth. Her decisions on the ball were clean and precise. She knew exactly when the ball needed to go short, when it needed to go long, when it needed to go on the side or in the middle. I’m very proud of her. It’s not an easy environment to come in in a game that means so much and pairing with (Lauren Barnes), who she’s only played 90 minutes with in her career. To display a performance like that, it’s incredible. It says a lot about her potential and her quality as a player.”
Jiménez Delgado, on the other hand, came on with one instruction.
“Celia came in for Theresa for a simple reason: to neutralize Press as much as possible,” Andonovski said. “I think she did a great job pushing Press as wide as possible, which for us was one of the goals. One of the tactical decisions we wanted to make. While she’s wide, we were bringing other players around. It’s dangerous . If Press gets the ball anywhere close to the box or in front of the box, I don’t think we can defend her. But with her getting the ball out wide with Celia in front of her and other players coming to help, I think we did a really good job of neutralizing her. Needless to say, Press is one of the best forwards in the world. She’s going to score if you give her an inch.”
Jiménez Delgado, with the help of her teammates, responded with gusto. The right back won all three of her tackles and finished with 10 recoveries, nine clearances and two interceptions. Toward the end of the first half, Press inverted to the other side of the pitch, but was similarly stymied by Catley and the midfield.
Despite the back line’s best efforts, Utah’s potent offense still found scoring opportunities. The Royals managed eight shots from inside the penalty area, including Katie Stengel’s goal in the 67th minute.
The defense blocked two shots, but Murphy was the difference maker. The keeper made seven saves—one away from her season-high—to push the club into the driver’s seat for the playoff race.
“This was a match where we needed to defend as a team, and we did,” Andonovski said. “I’m very pleased with how the players responded to the challenge and this is a huge win for us at this point in the season. Now we have to finish strong and make sure we make it to the playoffs.”