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Three things we learned from OL Reign vs Sky Blue FC

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The team has their defense figured out, now it’s time to see what the attack can do.

Soccer: NWSL Challenge Cup-OL Reign vs Sky Blue FC Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

OL Reign and Sky Blue FC battled to a 0-0 draw on Tuesday night in the first game of Farid Benstiti’s tenure as new head coach of the Reign. While the match didn’t create a lot of highlights, it gave us our first insight into Benstiti’s vision for the team and left us looking forward to what is still to come from this retooled roster, with 12 new players and several others returning from long-term injuries.

1. New coach, new players, same defense-first focus

Coming into their opening game, the 2020 OL Reign were a bit of an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, smothered in une sauce secrète. The extent of our knowledge about Benstiti’s plan for the team came from a short question-and-answer session the team hosted last Thursday and his pre-match press conference on Monday. There were none of the usual preseason matches to test things out and give us an idea of who Benstiti would select for his debut lineup, much less any hint at the formation or tactics he would ask of the players. The most that we knew was that he values possession and patient build-up play.

A few of the names selected for Tuesday’s lineup might have been a surprise, but ultimately the 4-3-3 that stepped onto the pitch in Herriman, Utah, was a formation that Reign fans are very familiar with: a narrow midfield with fullbacks providing the width, and a target forward in the middle of the attack looking for balls into the box from the flanks. Benstiti opted for a fairly conservative starting lineup, sacrificing some attacking prowess at fullback and in midfield in order to limit the potential for the team to be caught on the counter by Sky Blue’s speedy players. Similarly, he set the lines of defense deeper, allowing the team to more easily regroup and get into shape, at the expense of letting Sky Blue hold the ball in their defensive third with minimal pressure.

No team had kept a clean sheet in the first three games of the tournament, and with the exception of one defensive breakdown near the end of the first half that saw Naho Kawasumi nearly get an open look on goal before Lauren Barnes made a sliding block, OL Reign’s defensive plan was very effective. They held possession well and maintained their shape, but lacked much creativity and risk-taking going forward. We got a hint of what the team could turn into in the final 15 minutes of the game, when the attacking trio of Rosie White, Nicole Momiki and Jasmyne Spencer entered the match. They ran at tired defenders and created the best opportunity of the game for the Reign.

2. Welcome back, Jasmyne Spencer and Taylor Smith

Speaking of Spencer, she made her return to play after missing over a year while recovering from an ACL tear. Teammate Taylor Smith returned from an even longer layoff – she went 564 days after her ACL tear before finally making her Reign debut. If either player was rusty after their extended break, it didn’t show in their cameo appearances. Smith entered briefly at right forward before dropping back to right fullback, and Spencer had by far the best chance of the game for OL Reign when she got in behind the Sky Blue defense for a 1-v-1 opportunity against Kailen Sheridan.

And perhaps just as significant as finally getting two players back from long-term injury, everyone made it through the match without any significant new injuries.

3. There’s a lot more to come from this Reign roster

Each team in the league probably has a player or two who you could argue is better a given position, but no team is as deep across its top 20+ players as OL Reign. With the possible exceptions of Lu Barnes at centerback and Allie Long in the midfield, you could swap out every player from Tuesday’s starting lineup and have an equally high-quality and much more attacking-oriented team on the field. Benstiti hinted at that a bit during his pre-game press conference, when he talked about how he likes his teams to have at least two systems of play to make them more adaptable.

We got a tease of what White, Momiki, Spencer and Smith can do together in the final quarter-hour of the game, but can still look forward to seeing how Jess Fishlock and Morgan Andrews add flair to the midfield, how Celia and Adrienne Jordan can bomb forward as fullbacks, and what Sofia Huerta might bring to the attack. Amber Brooks has developed into a very capable centerback and should have no problem slotting in to rest Barnes or Alana Cook; Michelle Betos is back from her Achilles injury and could start for several teams in the league; and Madison Hammond and Kelcie Hedge impressed enough as rookies to earn multi-year contracts and might surprise us just as Bethany Balcer did last year. With a heavy emphasis on roster rotation and an increased number of subs each game, expect all of them to make significant contributions in this tournament.

In short, I think what we saw in the opening game was a deliberate plan to establish a solid defensive base, shake off any rust after the long offseason, and to make sure all of the fundamentals the team worked on in preseason were present. The next three preliminary round games should be exciting and give us a much deeper insight both into Benstiti’s vision as a coach, and how well-rounded this Reign roster is.