While 2020 has been a wild year, the NWSL has given us plenty of entertaining matches — from the summer NWSL Challenge Cup to the new NWSL Fall Series. While the Fall Series kicked off three weeks ago, OL Reign are finally getting their first match this weekend when they visit the Utah Royals on Saturday, September 26. The game kicks off at 12:30 PM PT and will stream on CBS All Access.
It’s been a weird year for women’s soccer, so we’ll forgive you if perhaps you haven’t been paying close attention to the NWSL Fall Series. But the games have been pretty fun, and now we finally get the chance to catch the Reign again.
I reached out to a few friends to help you get up to speed ahead of this weekend’s match, including a new face to Ride of the Valkyries, Rachael Kriger (@RachaelKriger on Twitter).
Susie Rantz: We are three weeks into the NWSL Fall Series. What have been your overall reactions so far?
Steve Voght: The games have been fun! With so many high-profile players opting out or going on loan it was tough to gauge how things would play out, but even if the quality has taken a little bit of a hit it’s hard to argue about getting to see lots of great goals and some new players get attention.
Tim Foss: Even more so than the Challenge Cup, the NWSL Fall Series feels like WoSo Whose Line Is It Anyway? Everything’s made up, the points don’t matter, and it’s a lot of fun if you don’t think about it too hard. It seems like a better opportunity for new players to get experience, with the weight of a potential “meaningful” competition removed.
Rachael Kriger: I’ve enjoyed the games for the most part! It kind of feels crazy that it’s almost become an “identification camp,” like Vlatko Andonovski had with the USWNT in December. This has been a great showing of the young players in the league. I’ve really enjoyed watching talent like Addysin Merrick (NC Courage), Sabrina Flores (Sky Blue) and Tziarra King (Utah Royals). Just because some of the big-name players aren’t in the states doesn’t mean it’s any less of a product. It’s been pretty good so far!
Jacob Cristobal: Tim entered my brain and pulled out a reference that is very relevant to me because I’ve been revisiting episodes of that show on one of my eleventy thousand streaming services!
Susie: I agree with you all. The games have been really fun to watch. Even the 0-0 draw between Orlando and North Carolina was exciting. Also, Orlando finally getting some games this year is great. So nice to see Marta on the field again, and some great debut performances for Orlando. My biggest surprise has been to see the TV viewership numbers remain so high. Turns out, if you put women’s sports on TV, people will watch the games!
Steve: Yes, that data has got to be huge for the league to take to potential sponsors as they gear up for next year.
Rachael: Who would have thought! Yes, seeing the numbers rise and remain steady — because consistency is key — is HUGE for the league!
Tim: Especially when there seemed/seems to be a lot of people who don’t watch the league talking about how the NWSL was going to be in trouble with so many big names heading out on loan.
Jacob: It’s like you can take the Challenge Cup and whatever becomes of the Fall Series as like the soft open of The Lisa Baird Administration.
Susie: On the subject of those loans ... several Reign players went overseas on loan deals to get more playing time, which means this team will look a little different. What are you hoping to see out of the Reign for these four Fall Series matches?
Jacob: The debuts of Madison Hammond and Julia Ashley has been at my forefront.
Rachael: Consistency is a big one. I would like to see a lot of combination between Allie Long and Shirley Cruz. I think that could be a very dangerous combination.
Steve: Biggest for me is to see if they can find a scoring touch. The defense and goalkeeping was solid at the Challenge Cup, but leaving Utah with only one goal in five games was tough.
Rachael: But my question is with that defense, how much will that change with players on loan? We all know what Lu Barnes can do. We know what Celia Jiménez can do. So, the big question, is who is going to step up and make it into a competition.
Susie: Yeah. Seems like a lot of teams are forgetting about defense in these Fall Series matches, which could open up the scoring opportunities for OL Reign. I think I’m mostly hoping to see a bit more of Farid Benstiti’s style of play and vision take shape. I feel like we really started to see it in the team’s final match of the Challenge Cup. Now that they’ve had a little more time together, I want to see the creativity that Farid has talked about show up.
Steve: I’m also very curious to see if someone rises to the top as third, or even second, CB. We know Lauren Barnes has one spot locked down and Amber Brooks seems likely to be her regular partner, but there are a lot of players vying for that role. With Barnes on loan for this series players like Hammond and Kristen McNabb will have a chance to claim that role for themselves.
Tim: Healthy Sofia Huerta is very high on my list, as is finding the answer to who pairs with Long and Cruz in midfield to allow them both to be their best. During the Challenge Cup the midfield was often too stagnant on both sides of the ball and as a result just weren’t super involved. Figuring that out probably helps the rest of the team immensely.
Susie: Huerta definitely showed what she’s capable of in her limited Challenge Cup minutes. Excited to see her get some more game time with this team!
Steve: I think I said before the Challenge Cup that this was going to be Morgan Andrews’ chance to take a big step forward as a regular in midfield, and I’m going to repeat that.
Susie: Let’s dive into that issue of player depth a little bit. And perhaps we take this line by line. If you were to guess the starting 4 players on the backline for the team’s first match against Utah, who would you expect to see fill in those spots?
Steve: I think we can write Steph Cox’s name in pen, given how well she performed at the Challenge Cup. After that it gets trickier.
Susie: My guess — and this is just a guess — is Cox, Kristen McNabb, Amber Brooks, Taylor Smith. I could see Ashley instead of McNabb, but I think it would be a lot to write Ashley into the starting lineup for the first match.
Jacob: My prediction for the Reign back 4: Cox at left, Hammond & Brooks in the middle, Smith at right. And yeah outside of the eventual league injury report, we don’t know how far along Julia Ashley is with recovering from her back injury that kept her out of the Challenge Cup.
Tim: I think my guess is the same as Jacob’s. The CBs are an absolute guess for me, but Smith seemed like one of the top-two choices at RB during the Challenge Cup along with Celia.
Rachael: I would say the same, although I could see Julia Ashley sneaking in somewhere.
Susie: I would have put Celia there before the news about her loan to Lyon came out!
Jacob: We all went to bed last night thinking the same and hello, good morning!
Steve: It’s also tricky without knowing what Kim Hazlett or Sam Hiatt bring to the team, and the team definitely has an eye for bringing in rookies who can surprise us.
Susie: OK, let’s move to the midfield. Who do you think will start there?
Jacob: Allie Long, Shirley Cruz, and Rosie White for me.
Steve: I would guess the first game we see Allie Long, Shirley Cruz, and Rosie White to start. Twins!
Rachael: If we’re going with a three-person midfield: Allie Long, Shirley Cruz and… gosh, I want to say Weatherholt, but I think it will be Rosie White. And, full disclosure, I want all the Shirley Cruz goals.
Susie: I think Weatherholt is a good shout. She came into her own, I thought, toward the end of the Challenge Cup and brings good energy in the midfield. If McNabb doesn’t start at CB, she seemed to be Farid’s preferred defensive midfielder. So there’s that option as well.
Rachael: That would be perfect for a diamond midfield.
Steve: I’m glad we still get five subs in these games, because the team can experiment a bit more and see which combos work best, even with the limited number of games.
Susie: Very true. Without a tournament on the line, even more reason to use all five subs.
Tim: Cruz and Long are basically whatever is the step beyond being written in pen, they’re engraved in stone with a magical chisel. I really have no idea who plays that third spot; several people got time there at the Challenge Cup, but no one clearly made it their own.
Jacob: MORGAN ANDREWS AT FORWARD. If we’re talking about experiments here.
Susie: I’m here for it. She played more of a No. 10 in Australia! What’s one more line up the field?
Susie: Speaking of the forward line, who gets the start for you?
Rachael: Give me some Miranda Nild goals!!!
Jacob: That might be the easiest trio to predict: Balcer, Huerta, and Spencer.
Rachael: I second that trio!
Tim: Spencer, Balcer, Huerta is my preferred front three, for sure, and that also seems like the most likely.
Susie: My guess is the same as yours, Jacob. And I’m so excited about Nild! What a great opportunity for her.
Steve: I was so excited to see Nild’s name pop up in camp. This series seems like the perfect opportunity to take a flier on a player who could be absolutely amazing or might struggle.
Rachael: I’m very excited to see Miranda Nild. I knew she was down in Houston for a while and then COVID happened and everything went chaotic. Her name definitely got lost in the shuffle.
Susie: My reaction to this conversation is that there is actually still quite a bit of depth on this team, despite them losing like 9 players to injury and loans. In general, who are some of the players you are excited to see get more playing time?
Jacob: The aforementioned Nild and also Leah Pruitt. If that piece the team posted yesterday is anything to go by, she sure sounds ready to make a case to secure a roster spot.
Rachael: Jasmyne Spencer is a total stud and I would love to see her get more minutes. Always happy to see a player returning to the pitch after a serious injury like an ACL.
Steve: I’m excited to see Huerta get some real minutes and show what she can bring to the attack. She looked promising in her limited minutes and seems very hungry to prove herself.
Susie: And it seems like Huerta has a coach she really trusts, which has to be a good sign.
Steve: I'm also looking forward to seeing all the youngsters who got limited or no minutes at the Challenge Cup! I want to see what this team’s depth looks like so we can sound smart in predicting who gets protected at the expansion draft and what needs the team has going into 2021.
Tim: Madison Hammond seems like a really exciting player, as well as just a really cool person, and I’m very much looking forward to being able to cheer her on!
Susie: I’m excited for Taylor Smith to get more minutes. I love what Farid said about her potential at right back — essentially, that she should be back on the national team radar in a few more months of play.
Steve: Even as a right forward Smith was a breath of fresh air when she stepped onto the pitch in the Challenge Cup. Quality players who have such versatility are a rarity, and that’s definitely something that national team coaches value when they have limited roster spots for a tournament like the Olympics.
Susie: I should acknowledge that I skipped over GK, because I think people would agree that Betos or Murphy are starting-quality players. My assumption is that Murphy starts, but either is a win!
Steve: The only thing that bums me out about our goalkeeping situation is that we’ve almost certainly got to leave one of them exposed during the expansion draft.
Rachael: Goalkeeper is such an interesting position. There’s nine starting spots. Only nine! Both of these keepers are really solid. I think that Casey Murphy one-hundred percent solidified herself with her play last season. Betos has looked really good though since coming back from her injury. But yes, there’s no way that one of them doesn’t go to Louisville.
Tim: That’s part of why I’m so glad that Neeku Purcell is getting to train with the two of them right now, and that they brought Carly Nelson back for a short-term deal. It seems unlikely that a GK would be the club’s first “home grown” player, but Neeku Purcell is, by all accounts, the real deal.
Susie: Yes, what a great opportunity for her to get some long-term training with the team. She’s only 16!
Jacob: Losing either goalkeeper to Louisville I think is based on who is making the decisions there and their vision for that roster. Yeah Christy Holly is their coach, but as far as I know he’s not the GM.
Susie: The Reign will only play two teams this fall: Portland Thorns and Utah Royals. They face Utah first this weekend. The Royals players are going through A LOT with a new head coach and the fallout from racist and sexist remarks from ownership and leadership. In their first match last weekend, what were some of your takeaways about Utah?
Jacob: Shoutout to all the reporting that our friends and colleagues that have covered the crisis at Utah.
Tim: If there was ever a team for the midfield to find a rhythm against, it seems like it might be Utah. With their move back to a 4-3-3, OL Reign shouldn’t be outnumbered, and it seemed like Utah struggled to control the midfield on either side of the ball.
Rachael: When watching the Utah game, I think their midfield and attack looked pretty decent. I don’t think the defense was in the best shape at all, to be completely frank. Utah is a good team, but they lost a lot of key players on defense, between Sauerbrunn going to Portland, O’Hara opting out and losing Becca Moros to retirement. That needs shaped up, for sure.
Susie: It definitely felt like they found some more opportunity when Vero Boquete came on, but I would agree that they don’t seem to have enough depth right now.
Steve: The biggest question mark for me is how the Royals respond now that they’ve had some time to process the news. The players really do seem like they have rallied around each other and are prepared to do what’s needed to support interim head coach Amy LePeilbet, and that psychological component can often be just as important as the physical one.
Susie: Kaylyn Kyle (who by the way was a fantastic commentator for the Thorns/Royals match) sure had great things to say about LePeilbet. Vero echoed that after the game. I’m glad the players have a coach that they trust and respect right now.
Jacob: Yeah. I think this weekend Utah will be a lot more focused and play with more crispness. Like the other teams, they’re trying to play cohesion without their star impact players. I can’t even begin to imagine how to balance that out with what’s gone on off the field, knowing the soon to be out the paint owner is a total scumbag.
Susie: OK, last question from me. And we’ll make it a more optimistic, fun one. Which Reign player scores the most goals in these 4 matches?
Jacob: Sofia Huerta.
Rachael: Bethany Balcer.
Tim: I remain a Bethany Balcer ride or die, so that’s my guess too.
Steve: Thirded, welcome back to the Tacoma Boats Show.
Susie: I’m going to go totally wild and say Spencer. The Jasmyne Spencer hype train is ready!
Steve: I’ll just be thrilled if it’s a competition and multiple players are chasing for the title.
Tim: Honestly, Balcer has looked pretty solid as a very attacking 10, so her feeding the likes of Spencer, Huerta, and whoever else lines up could be really fun. I’d take her having the most assists instead of goals.
Susie: Lots of goals. That’s what we truly want. Thanks for the chat today! Look forward to watching the match with all of you this weekend.
Tune into OL Reign’s first NWSL Fall series match this Saturday. Their 12:30 PM PT game against the Royals will be on CBS All Access (US/Canada) and Twitch for international viewers.