OL Reign 0 North Carolina Courage 0 NWSL Regular Season May 15, 2021 – Cheney Stadium – Tacoma, WA
It had been since the 2019 NWSL semifinal in Cary, NC in October 2019 since the OL Reign and North Carolina Courage had squared off. It was an extra time thriller on the other coast then.
The visiting Courage went right at the hosts, getting an opportunity on goal in the second minute that hit the Reign crossbar. The first quarter hour continued in that manner, with the visitors on the pedal and bringing a good deal of pressure on to the Reign goal.
Eventually, the Reign got their footing, with Jessica Fishlock sending a set piece over Casey Murphy that the Cheney Stadium crowd was briefly certain had gone in. A few more set pieces for the Reign were dangerous as the half progressed, as the match got chippy for a while and the Courage drew two quick yellow cards.
Any team with Debinha on the pitch has a chance to do dangerous things. The Reign defense was put under pressure dealing with her and what she was creating, setting the rest of the Courage offense up as she drew additional attention.
Even so, an entertaining first half finished and the match entered the interval goalless.
Courage coach Paul Riley had mentioned in the match build up how the narrow confines in Tacoma would dictate play. With both teams looking to push the attack, both defenses played a bit on their back heels, seeming more to disrupt and quickly distribute than maybe typically building up out of the back. With the narrow field, Jessica McDonald’s long throws were dangerous set pieces for the Reign defense to face.
Both keepers were put to the test throughout. Both Karen Bardsley for the OL Reign and Casey Murphy for the Courage were called upon to make reflex saves, which in what turned out to be a goalless draw are even more important.
The hosts subbed in fresh attackers, with Megan Rapinoe and Bethany Balcer augmenting the second half attack, creating chances. But, with veteran defenders on each side like Lauren Barnes and Abby Erceg, neither defense gave way.
Both clubs were 2-1-1 with 7 points and 2nd place divisional finishes in the Challenge Cup matches leading to the opener. Both sides pressed on the attack, were challenging and disrupting passes, and attempting to counter quickly.
Afterward, Courage players were happy with their play, even if the result was a goalless draw. “Honestly, I thought it was one of our best performances so far,” Carson Pickett said. “We are really starting to gel, and I think we are in a good place to keep growing into the season.”
The Reign have reason to feel good as well, especially with their resilience against a good North Carolina side, knowing that international help is coming later in the season.
Both sides grab a point to start a long regular season. Both defenses kept a clean sheet. Both offenses created chances, but were unable to convert. A long season is now underway.
NCC (4-3-3): Casey Murphy, Merritt Mathias, Abby Erceg, Kaliegh Kurtz, Carson Pickett; Denise O’Sullivan, Debinha, Havana Solaun (Brittany Ratcliffe – 77’); Jessica McDonald, Hailie Mace (Cari Roccaro – 77’), Kristen Hamilton Subs Not Used: Katelyn Rowland, Taylor Smith, Schuyler DeBree, Diane Caldwell, Ryan Williams, Lynn Williams, Lindsay Agnew
RGN (4-3-3): Karen Bardsley, Celia Jimenez (Amber Brooks – 23’), OLison Hammond, Kristen McNabb, Lauren Barnes, Jessica Fishlock, D. Weatherholt, Sofia Huerta, Rosie White (Bethany Balcer – 46’ ), Tziarra King (Megan Rapinoe – 57’), Leah Pruitt (Angelina – 86’) Subs Not Used: C. Morché, Machaela George, Stephanie Cox, Jasmyne Spencer, Yuka Momiki
So, a few weeks ago, we had the Bouhaddi and Maroszan announcement. This week, Eugénie LeSommer was announced as coming over to join OL Reign as well.
With the team not likely to feel too much of an impact from the Olympics (Rapinoe, Quinn, Bardsley and possibly Jess Fishlock – dependent on whether Team GB calls in Welsh and Scotland Nationals or sticks with just England’s), the three OL players are going to show up when most of the league is starting to be depleted. And if they weren’t planning to get significant minutes, why would they come over?
The question will be “at whose expense?” Particularly in the attack – will this displace Bethany Balcer or Tziarra King to a secondary role, or bump one of them (I’d think Balcer more likely) into a false 9 or attacking mid running in behind LeSommer? But we’ll get those answers soon enough.
Tonight, we’ll see the North Carolina Courage, who may end up both scoring and conceding the most goals in the league. If this match becomes a track meet, it’s unlikely to end well for the home side. If, on the other hand, the Reign can limit NCC on the counter and build pressure into attack, it bodes well for them. Hopefully, the hostesses will show the form of the last two weeks of the Challenge Cup, and not the first two, and will bank three points in their opener.
Chicago Red Stars visited the OL Reign in the Pacific Northwest Tuesday evening in NWSL Challenge Cup play. Neither side could catch the division leading Portland Thorns, but with the regular season on the horizon and returning internationals, the match was still an excellent chance for both sides to prepare for May forward.
The host Reign presented a far more veteran starting eleven than in their previous two Challenge Cup matches, having worked the returning Megan Rapinoe and Jessica Fishlock into starting roles. Even with the trade earlier in the day of Allie Long to Gotham, the Reign line up had Steph Cox and Lauren Barnes adding veteran presence.
A fairly back and forth first half was reflective of the early season and line up changes through these early matches. Chicago had the best of the early play, pushing more into the host half and making the Reign mostly counter for any opportunities.
Red Stars forward Mallory Pugh broke through with a left footed strike in the 38th minute, sneaking a low strike past the outstretched Karen Bardsley.
The Reign began to get more possession and opportunities as the first half closed, Sofia Huerta converting past ALyssa Naeher in the 41st after the Reign press had pressured the Red Stars into a bad turnover near their own penalty area. For the hosts, the goal was the first of the Challenge Cup, having been held goalless by both Houston and Portland.
It is oft quoted about how goals change games. Chicago continued for much of the second half with much of the possession, but a 70th minute OL Reign Leah Pruitt goal put them in a hole with 20 minutes remaining.
Kealia Watt appeared to have equalized in the 80th, but the flag was up and it was waved off.
Tziarra King extended the lead in the 87th, but the lead was tenuous as the Red Stars continued to press.
A 90th minute scramble and Chicago goal by Morgan Gautrat cut the lead to 3-2 going into the four minutes of announced stoppage time. Chicago pressed forward, getting one last set piece late, but to no avail.
In the end, the three Challenge Cup points went to the host Reign. Not scoring in the first two matches had weighed on them, breaking through with three goals and being mostly full strength doing it could bode well down the road. Chicago continues to look for its first win of 2021, but there was a lot of good in their performance and the regular season resets the standings.
A few more Challenge cup matches remain around the league; the Red Stars have completed their four,the Reign having one remaining. The regular season schedule has dropped and it should be an interesting year.
Goals: CHI – Pugh – 38′ OLR – Huerta – 41′ OLR – Pruitt – 70′ OLR – King – 87′ CHI – Gautrat – 90’+
This entire match can be summarized in one play: the Reign have a throw-in on the right touch line, nearly parallel with the top of the 18-yard box in their attacking zone. The throw-in is taken, and the recipient turns and passes back to either Amber Brooks or Madison Hammond (I can’t recall which) in the Reign defensive third.
Because when you can’t coordinate linking play to advance the ball into attack, you deliberately cede 150 feet of the pitch.
Or in two plays: Karen Bardsley makes an ordinary save, and looks to distribute quickly. By throwing the ball directly to a Thorns player’s feet.
This is a team which may have extraordinary talent, but two matches in, it’s becoming clear that they’re not being coached to play as a unit or to succeed.
The back four struggled again. Bardsley looked even more lost than against Houston in marshalling them in front of her. There’s little linking or transition play.
Apparently US Soccer dictated 30′ max for Megan Rapinoe. No idea why Jess Fishlock went less than 45′. Ride of the Valkyries is reporting that we didn’t see Lu Barnes for a second week due to an injury and not being match fit. Not to doubt our colleagues, who are passing on what they’ve been told, but if Barnes is injured and not match ready, why is she dressed for the match rather than being on the injury report? Something’s highly suspect there.
Sooner or later, there has to be accountability, and looking unprepared two matches in a row should be putting the coaching staff in an uncomfortable spot. Not winning due to a bad bounce or missed play is one thing, but looking underprepared and disjunct points a finger at coaching.
Reign v Thorns is a iconic an NWSL rivalry as there is. I mean, even if it wasn’t for West Coast supremacy and all that, where else is there one which has stood the test as well as this has? I mean, Western New York is now Carolina, Sky Blue is now Gotham, FCKC became the Utah Royals who became KC SC; so of the NWSL debutantes, that leaves the Spirit and Red Stars. Both worthy adversaries, don’t get me wrong, but nothing comparable to a duel between Upper Left rivals. Even if it has lost some of the cachet of Seattle v. Portland with the Reign move to Tacoma, we can now frame it as MLS v World, and extend the battle to Merritt Paulson v. Jean-Michel Aulas. Take that, Portlanders!
But more seriously, as far as making a run for the NWSL Challenge Cup goes, this is a must-have 3 points if the Reign hope to face the top team from the East. At six points from two matches, the Thorns should be able to clinch the top spot from the West with a win; whereas the Reign need a victory tonight not to sit five or more points back with a game in hand, but only two remaining. To put it simply, if there’s a winner tonight, that team is likely the West representative in the Challenge Cup final. So, where do things stand? Portland beat KC 2:1 at Providence Park, and outlasted Chicago on the road 1:0, whereas the only Reign data point we have was the tussle at Cheney Stadium Friday night where Reign B drew the Dash in a scoreless duel.
But tonight, Fortune’s Favourites should field pretty much an A squad starting lineup, with the likes of Megan Rapinoe and Jess Fishlock back from International duty long enough to be all but certain to slot into the Starting XI. Hopefully, we’ll also see the return of Lu Barnes to the centre of the backline. Madison Hammond was the shining light in the back for OL Reign against Houston, and I’d be hard-pressed to take her out of the lineup, even if Amber Brooks might be ahead of her on the depth chart.
But the BIG NEWS from Camp Predmore this week is the loan from the parent club – Dzsenifer Marozsan and Sarah Bouhaddi are scheduled to join the squad after the conclusion of Olympique Lyonnaise’s season in June. This will see the Reign with a stunning FIVE goalkeepers on the roster – arguably two too many – and will leave competition in the midfield open to see who will round out the trio with Fishlock and Marozsan.
From PDX, we’ll see a trio which has been pretty dominant in establishing control in Rocky Rodriguez, Celeste Boureille, and Meghan Klingenberg. No, that’s not a mistake. Midfielder Meghan Klingenberg, not playing as a centre-back. Therein lies PringELLE’s key to the game. The team which can establish midfield dominance will be favoured to walk away with the laurels of the Cascadia Derby and the three points. We’ll need to see a more solid unit than Shirley Cruz, Angelina, and Dani Weatherholt – my guess would be Fishlock joins Cruz and Long returns to the lineup if able; with Weatherholt, Angelina, and Quinn in reserve. Pinoe slots in on the left side in attack, with Sofia Huerta on the right and Bethany Balcer in the middle; we see Hammond and Barnes in the central defending roles, flanked by Celia and Cox or McNabb; and Bardsley between the sticks.
To rehash Laura Harvey and so many coaches everywhere and when, “Goals change games.” Barring a fluky strike against the run of play, this battle will come down to “which side more effectively can control midfield and link up play out of the back into attack.”
If the Thorns can stretch the field and manage to get runs from the likes of Crystal Dunn out of the back, it might be a long night for the visitors; but it’d be premature to discount Rapinoe crosses into the box or Tiny Dragon determination. This, after all, is why the matches are played, rather than just allocating points on strength of roster.
[edited, 6:41 pm. We now see that I’m not an insider. No Pinoe, Fishlock, or Barnes in the XI. King slots in on left wing, Angelina on the right, with Huerta in the attacking midfield.]
Finishing touch would be nice. So would more of the team we saw in the white kits in the second half. Not so much the edition before the turn. Loved the spark from King and Spencer when they came in. Pruitt had a solid go from the front – it’d be nice to see those efforts on frame, though. Thought Madison Hammond looked solid in an otherwise pretty shaky back four. Finding McNabb’s compete level to still be commendable.
With at least three, if not four and possibly five starters either not in the 18 or unused (Rapinoe, Fishlock, and Quinn from international duty; Long from a pre-match injury; and Barnes for undisclosed reasons), there’s a lot to look forward to as the Challenge Cup continues.
The back four, though, need to coalesce a bit, and focus on clearances – that seemed to be a running issue all night; and with the attack generating chances but not capitalizing on them, the fear was always that Houston would strike on the counter, despite being on the back foot most of the second half. Bardsley looked a little less confident in controlling the line in front of her too, and although not called upon to make any really challenging saves, I’d expect an international starter between the sticks to be capable of generalling her defenders much more assertively.
Still, for a first match, and one against a team which played well enough to not lose, there’s hope looking forward.
OL Reign opened the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup Friday night in Tacoma, hosting the Houston Dash. A long off-season was finally over and real matches were in the works, almost six months since playing their final Fall Series match in October.
Houston had grabbed a point in a nil-nil draw at home in their first match, traveling up to the Pacific Northwest looking to get points to defend their 2020 Challenge Cup.
The first half was limited in chances on goal. Each side got a few chances, but the bulk of the play was in the middle of the pitch. Houston had an advantage on possession in the first 45, but it didn’t lead to many chances. The Reign defense held the Dash up as they moved towards the goal, but the Reign counter managed a similar level of success generating few clear chances.
The home side came out the second half with more of the play. Opening up their attack also led to the Houston visitors stretching the field in response after an initial ten minutes of Reign pressure. A much more end to end second half followed. By the middle of the second half, a few yellow cards also followed for each, as some hard fouls came in the wake of the additional opportunities and the match remained a tense goalless scoreline.
Goalless draws can be seen as drab affairs, but this one was more a result of early season connections just missing. Houston was on it’s second match since the October NWSL Fall Series ended; with the host Reign on their first. As the match progressed, attackers would take more chances on the dribble, attempting to create for themselves. Dash attacker Shea Groom created some opportunities with dangerous runs. Sofia Huerta challenged the Houston goal with a strong volley, but Lindsey Harris was up to the task.
Neither side comes out of the match too much for the worst in the sense of the point, but it means only two points on two goalless draws thus far for the defending Challenge Cup champions. They do need points.
The match was the first for the Reign in front of fans since the end of the 2019 season. 1263 were spread out about the park, and they became more noticeable as the match progressed. The Reign now move on to fave Cascadia rivals Portland Thorns FC on Wednesday down the road in Oregon.
The only OLR player to have appeared in every match in 2019 and 2020, Bethany Balcer continued her streak of playing every match as a professional in her third season in Tacoma.