Still dealing with short- and long-term injuries, Reign FC will once again have to prove their resiliency against a relentless Courage attack. If they can hold on and eke out a win, the team will book a ticket to the NWSL Championship — where they’ll take on either Chicago or Portland.
Here are five things we hope to see from the Reign in their semifinal match.
1. Hold firm defending crosses into the box
The Courage have sent 630 crosses into the box this season. The Reign, who have tallied the third-most crosses in the league, are well behind with 405. Reign FC’s backline and midfield are going to need to stay strong and handle these balls in the air. They’ll come from all over the field — deeper on the field from the outside backs and from midfielders pulling wide near the 18-yard box. Courage left back Jaelene Hinkle is in the top 5 in the league for touches per 90 minutes — and has 6 assists this season — to give you an indication of the team’s reliance on their width and crossing.
Reign FC may be without Megan Oyster, who is strong in the air, due to injury. Whoever settles in at centerback is going to have to stand tall alongside Lauren Barnes — and ensure the Courage crosses are cleared out strongly, not allowing any second chances close to goal.
2. Dominate the midfield
North Carolina lines up in a 4-2-2-2 formation — using outside backs for width while putting four very active bodies in the midfield. Teams that traditionally play a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 like the Reign often struggle to win the battle in the middle of the field due to North Carolina’s numerical advantage. Vlatko Andonovksi will likely adjust his formation slightly to accommodate, but it’s also on the midfield core of players to keep the pressure strong and not let North Carolina dictate play in the center of the park.
3. Take plenty of (smart) shots from distance
One interesting stat about the Courage is that 30% of the goals they have given up have come from outside the 18-yard box. That’s the highest proportion in the league. The Reign would be smart to test the backline and goalkeeping early with a few unexpected or quick shots from distance. You know who almost scored one last week against Orlando? Megan Rapinoe. Yeah, we wouldn’t mind a Pinoe blast from deep on Sunday.
4. A goal on a quick restart or counter
North Carolina sends lots of bodies forward when they are attacking. They don’t often get punished for it either, as their midfield wins the ball back high up the field — lessening the pressure on their backline. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t vulnerable to a quick counter or restart. Whether it’s Rapinoe’s quick throw-ins or a player like Bethany Balcer or Darian Jenkins on the counter — it’s possible to catch the Courage out of position.
5. A result to be proud of
Regardless of the ultimate scoreline, after a season where the team showed so much resiliency in the face of mounting adversity, all we can ask for against a ridiculously good North Carolina side is a performance to be proud of. I suspect the team is going to have no problem delivering that on Sunday.
Reign FC kicks off at 10:30 AM PT in a match that will air on ESPN2.
OUT: Taylor Smith (SEI – Right Knee), Jasmyne Spencer (Left Knee), Michelle Betos (SEI – Right Achilles), Jaycie Johnson (SEI – Right Knee), Scout Watson (SEI – Concussion), Jessica Fishlock (SEI – Left Knee), Rumi Utsugi (Back)
QUESTIONABLE: Rebecca Quinn (Right Hamstring), Megan Oyster (Left Knee)
OUT: Merritt Mathias (Left Knee), Ryan Williams (Right Ankle), Leah Pruitt (Right Knee), Hailey Harbison (Left Knee)
QUESTIONABLE: Samantha Mewis (Right Knee)