Starting the season on the road is never the most ideal scenario. Starting the season on the road with injuries to key players AND numerous others just returning from international duty is even worse. But that’s exactly what Reign FC was up against for its 2019 NWSL season opener — a road match against the Houston Dash without Megan Rapinoe, Steph Catley, Lydia Williams or Bev Yanez.
Not to mention, Theresa Nielsen, Jodie Taylor, and Celia Jimenez Delgado traveled to Europe for international matches, with some only returning days before the game.
Looking at the lineup before the match without those key players, and with many returning on short rest, one might say a road draw wouldn’t be the worst result. However, it was the uncharacteristic passing, unfortunate injuries and a missed penalty that most fans are remembering after Sunday’s 1-1 draw with the Dash.
Here are five things we took away from the match.
First-match jitters? Hopefully.
The Reign, a team known for dominating possession and building play from the back, had some of their worst passing numbers in recent years against a Houston Dash side that, historically, conceded possession in favor of counter-attack opportunities. While the Dash certainly pressured Reign FC more than in prior seasons, it wasn’t the pressure that caused the Reign to connect only 64.4% of all passes, it was poor touches and decision-making from the Tacoma-based club.
Was that first-match jitters? Hopefully. Theresa Nielsen had a particularly rough match, ending with a 57.7% pass success rate — well below her average last season, which was closer to 70%. Part of that might have to do with the fact that Jasmyne Spencer, who lined up in front of Nielsen to start the match, came off in the 27th minute due to injury, causing Shea Groom to move to right wing. Groom was injured during most of Reign FC’s preseason and hasn’t had much time to gel with Nielsen.
Whatever the cause, it felt more like an anomaly than something Reign FC fans should come to expect this season.
Allie Long needs to be more involved
Allie Long had only 34 touches and 23 passes on Sunday. Last season, she averaged 72 touches per match. Long had a pretty respectable 78.3% pass completion rate against the Dash, but it was hard for her to make an impact and shuttle the ball up the field field when she wasn’t getting it that often. In comparison, Houston’s two defensive center midfielders, Christine Nairn and Sophie Schmidt, had 78 and 76 touches, respectively.
She was relied on much more heavily on the defensive end. Long had nine recoveries, a tackle and an interception. Still, if Reign FC want to dictate play and break teams down, they’ve got to get Long more involved on the offensive side of play. She’s not going to break lines with long balls, but she demonstrated last year that she’s going to keep the ball and find the open player — something that could have helped on Sunday, where Reign FC lacked rhythm.
Darian Jenkins is showing her potential
Darian Jenkins certainly showed flair during the preseason, but with no significant NWSL experience under her belt, she was a bit of an unknown commodity heading into the year. She left few questions after the 2019 opening match.
Lining up on the left side in place of Megan Rapinoe, Jenkins was a constant threat on the flank and notched the lone Reign FC goal, her first in NWSL play. Jenkins is strong and hard to push off the ball, is unafraid to take an opponent on 1-v-1, and has a killer shot after cutting into the box. It’s how she opened her NWSL account.
It’s still way too early to know exactly how the year will play out, but Jenkins continues to look like an underrated signing.
Ugh, the injuries
If fans were worried when the injury report came out before the match, their concerns were heightened to 100 after the match concluded. It sounds like Rapinoe and Catley are out for another week at a minimum, while Yanez could be available for Reign FC’s home opener this weekend. Rapinoe and Catley are a huge loss on the left side of the field, but the absence of Yanez last weekend shouldn’t be discounted either. The Reign certainly could have used a player like her to help them win balls higher up the field.
On top of that, Jasmyne Spencer left Sunday’s match with a non-contact injury that — while it hasn’t been officially confirmed yet — looked to be an ACL tear. Spencer was a critical impact sub at the start of last season who earned her way into a starting role at the season’s conclusion.
Megan Oyster also went down with what appeared to be a calf or ankle injury in the first half. While Oyster’s injury didn’t appear as serious, it is clear that Reign FC’s depth will be tested even earlier than expected this year. They have the talent to rise above the challenge, but it won’t be easy.
A chance to steal the match
While a draw felt fair given Reign FC’s performance — both the disappointing start and stronger second half — the club had a chance to steal two points in the waning seconds of the match. Jodie Taylor put some strong pressure on Dash goalkeeper Jane Campbell, causing her to lose the ball at her feet. Ever the veteran, Taylor sold the little bit of contact Campbell made with her foot and earned a penalty.
With Rapinoe — Reign FC’s stalwart penalty taker — out, Taylor stepped up to take the kick. The England international thought she had Campbell guessing wrong and tried to finesse the ball toward the lower right corner. Unfortunately, she didn’t put enough on the shot and passed it far too central to sneak around Campbell. The striker, who missed a PK against Sky Blue last season but also scored one against Portland, will certainly want that one back.
Still, an opening road point that had some positives isn’t the end of the world (and I haven’t even talked about Michelle Betos’ standout performance!). What this team needs to do to improve remains well within their control — better, smarter passing; more movement and involvement from the midfield; and a little more overall punch and aggression.
Reign FC now has a chance this weekend to establish a new narrative in a new home, and notch their first win on the season in front of thousands of supporters. The club kicks off its inaugural match at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma on Sunday, April 21. Tickets remain available for the 7 PM PT match, and Seattle-based fans can take advantage of a shuttle bus from Seattle to the stadium.