The NWSL Challenge Cup quarterfinals kick off this weekend, and OL Reign will close out the round against the Chicago Red Stars on Saturday night. Prior to the knockout stage action, CBS Sports spoke with midfielder Allie Long about preparing for the Utah tournament, growing the game and her new digital show -- The Conference Call, which Long co-hosts with Vero Boquete of the Utah Royals.
OL Reign entered the Challenge Cup with a new head coach, new team rebrand, and even some newly acquired players. The team utilized the group stage as an opportunity to build its style of play and commitment to formation and the Reign enter the knockout round as the No. 3 seed in the tournament despite scoring just one goal in four games.
The team has shown a more methodical, slower, build up this tournament, and in doing so has needed to rely on players' ability to connect. For Long, her 91 percent success rate on passes this tournament has proven essential in retaining possession for the Reign. And, even without much scoring, Long believes coach Farid Benstiti has the Reign on the right plan.
"[He's] such a great coach I'm so thankful that he's here, he knows the game so well," Long said. "The things that he's teaching us, he's just being very patient... and we've shown steps in the right direction."
The COVID-19 pandemic initially stalled the start of the NWSL season, and it also impacted offseason prep for players. In between balancing training, fitness, and quarantine, a number of projects and passions motivated Long to find news ways to grow the game not just on the pitch, but off.
During quarantine, Long earned a reputation as an avid gamer, streaming her play on Twitch, often raising money for charities, while trying to expand conversions around women's professional soccer. The World Cup champion is growing into her newest role, as a co-host of a new digital soccer interview show, The Conference Call, launching this week.
La Liga North America and the International Champions Cup approached Long with the opportunity, and Long -- a noted fan of Barcelona midfielder Sergio Busquets -- saw it as a chance to continue the work of growing the women's game through the lens of international soccer with two pro female athletes leading the conversation.
"For me, La Liga has just been the league that I'm drawn to," said Long. "(The opportunity) was a no brainer. I'm really passionate about people seeing women with roles in football, having them know that this isn't just a male sport. I feel like I study enough and know a lot about the game and it's just something that I'm really excited to do and help bring La Liga to North America."
Per a release, Boquete, a Spanish international and UEFA Champions League winner said, "2020 has showed us that we all have more in common than we knew, and The Conference Call will link the common bonds that footballers from all over the world share in their preparation, mindset, and will to win."
Long and Boquete will alternate interviews with each of them doing episodes in both English and Spanish in an effort to engage with bilingual audiences in the United States. Of the six player interviews currently scheduled, four of them are professional women's soccer players, representing three countries and two different leagues.
Long is already thinking of other female athletes she can help audiences engage with, including some friends and World Cup champions.
"I'd love to chat with Jenni Hermoso, I've always been a big fan of hers. As a player I love the way she plays, I've always wanted to play with her," says Long. "But I want to interview some of my teammates here in North America and their passion for La Liga as well… or if I want to bring Alex [Morgan] on and talk about [her daughter] Charlie, I think that'd be something fun and cool for everyone to see."
Having won a World Cup, NWSL Championships, and played around the world, Long plans to cast a wide net to find projects that are a perfect fit for her, while still being able to focus on her on-the-field career.
"I love analyzing the game, I love talking to other players about the game. I am pretty much a soccer nerd, I would say. Just having this first experience with La Liga and doing this in a kind of fun way, I think it's just a great step to see if this is something I do want to do on a bigger scale, but this is the perfect smaller scale type thing...I'm really excited about it."
But for now, prepping for the Challenge Cup quarterfinals comes first for Long. The midfielder believes the Reign's best soccer is ahead of them as the team prepares to face the sixth-seeded Chicago Red Stars on Saturday night.
"Right now we are just focusing on ourselves and what we need to do and how we're going to play," said Long. "We haven't created many chances... We missed two [chances] last game… we're breaking the line of pressure and then forcing it.. So I think it's just being more patient and more composed."
As the Reign closed out their final group match, they saw the return of longtime player Jess Fishlock, as well as 2020 acquisition Sofia Huerta, while Jasmyne Spencer and Taylor Smith have returned to play from injury this year as well. Long believes they can be essential pieces in the knockout stage.
"I'm just so excited for Jess to be back on the field and seeing her again, I think I've waited like a year-and-a-half to finally play with her again," Long explained. "I think it's huge, these are players that we've built our team around and the way we played and the way we prepared for this tournament. So to have them not start at the beginning Tournament is obviously going to change a lot of things.
"I can't wait to see the future of this team because I know it's only going to get better."