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Three things we learned from OL Reign vs Houston Dash

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It takes more than possession and patience to win games

2020 NWSL Challenge Cup - Day 4 Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

OL Reign fell to the Houston Dash, 2-0, in disappointing fashion on Saturday night in their second game of the NWSL Challenge Cup. The Reign finished with zero shots on goal and seemed to be at a loss for creative ideas going forward against a team that was more than happy to sit back and let them brainstorm.

1. Possession without a purpose is pointless

New OL Reign Head Coach Farid Benstiti promised that his team would focus on possession and patient build-up play, and there is no doubt that he has delivered on that in the first two games of the NWSL Challenge Cup, almost to a fault. The Reign held nearly 58% of possession and completed 77% of their 420 pass attempts in Saturday’s game against the Houston Dash, but came away with zero shots on goal to show for it.

The Reign seemed completely flummoxed by Houston’s willingness to sit back and push play out wide, particularly after the first goal. The Reign midfield attempted only two passes into the box all night, and both were unsuccessful. The team needs to find that connection between midfield and forwards to break lines of pressure, and they haven’t figured it out yet.

All passes attempted by Reign midfielders in the attacking half.

The passing map is fairly cluttered in the middle third of the field (bottom of the picture), but if you look closely you can see that the preferred passes by the midfielders were either very short side-to-side balls to cycle possession, or long balls toward the corner for a wide forward or fullback to run onto for a cross into the box. The midfielders had almost zero involvement once the ball got into the final third, leaving the Reign attackers severely outnumbered and stymied in their efforts to do anything in front of goal.

Similarly, here is Bethany Balcer’s touch map from the game, showing just how much she struggled to receive the ball in a dangerous position as the target forward:

Balcer’s touches against Houston.

Allie Long was asked post-match about the team’s desire to play to feet and whether they might need to try being more direct. She felt that the team had shifted to being too direct and kept wasting opportunities after the first Dash goal. While that might be true in terms of the wide players whipping in crosses that failed to connect, the story elsewhere on the pitch continued to be one of passing to death.

2. Defensive blunders are to be expected, but that doesn’t make them less painful

Both Dash goals came on Reign defensive blunders. Kristie Mewis’ opener came after a cascading list of bad decisions, from the initial pass back to Casey Murphy under pressure, to Murphy’s mishit clearance, to Amber Brooks getting caught flat-footed after Shea Groom’s backheel flick to Kristie Mewis. The second Dash goal was again the result of lost marks, as Taylor Smith and Brooks either didn’t see or didn’t have the energy to chase Groom as she bombed into the box on a late run.

The good news is both of those errors should be fixable with time. We’ve seen similar goofs from nearly every team in this tournament, thanks to a combination of rust and needing to get familiar with new teammates, amplified for the Reign by a new coach asking for some new things tactically. This year in particular has been difficult for teams due to the shortened preseason and no meaningful preseason games to test things out.

3. The NWSL Challenge Cup is a lot of fun

Maybe not for OL Reign fans in particular, but nearly every match in this tournament has brought some highlight reel moments. There was legitimate concern going into the event that the preliminary round games might be pretty rough around the edges, since teams hadn’t had much opportunity to train together or play any preseason matches to work out the kinks and would be doing heavy roster rotation. The opening game of the tournament quickly dispelled that notion, and the theme has been bangers. Groom’s flying header against the Reign, Vero Boquete threading an inch-perfect pass to Amy Rodriguez for Utah, and this pair of stunning goals from Sunday night’s game.

Even if OL Reign ultimately disappoint, there’s a lot to enjoy about this event.