While OL Reign’s 2021 Challenge Cup opener last Friday didn’t get the club the three points they wanted to start the year, there were some positive things to take away from the match. The team earned a point and kept a clean sheet against the Houston Dash — the 2020 Challenge Cup winners — and showed promising options in the attack in the second half.
With the caveat that one game is not enough to draw conclusions from, here are three things we observed in OL Reign’s first match — along with a few thoughts on what they could mean for their next set of Challenge Cup matches.
It’s all about the midfield
With Angelina making a surprise start after Allie Long got injured in warmups, the midfield was disjointed in the first half. All too often, Angelina and Shirley Cruz were making runs into the same place or clogging up the same lanes. The result? OL Reign had 56.4% possession in the first half but only 4 shots to show for it. And just 2 on target.
OL Reign coach Farid Benstiti acknowledged this in the post-game press conference — noting that he made a key adjustment in the second half. The attackers on the wings pinched further in, allowing the Reign’s outside backs to provide the width and, more importantly, pulling Angelina wider toward the sideline.
This allowed the attack to be a lot more direct, and both Celia and Angelina were key providers — along with Sofia Huerta, who got a lot more time on the ball. The press was more fluid as well. Simply put, everything worked better with this simple change. According to StatsBomb, Celia and Angelina led the team in shot-creating actions with three.
It also let Cruz do what she does best: find the channels with consistent accuracy. With the second-half formation adjustments, Cruz had more space to spray passes. As a result, the Costa Rican midfielder led the team in completed passes into the Reign’s final third of play.
This chance in the 62nd minute — one of the Reign’s best of the night, and when the momentum truly shifted in their favor — came from all of these factors combing. Celia has space on the wings after an interception, and Cruz finds her with a smooth pass into space. Angelina and Huerta create space and options in the middle and far post.
When the Reign had Kim Little, Jess Fishlock, and Keelin Winters in the midfield in their days of dominance back in 2014 and 2015, this is exactly what they learned to do together. Little would often pull wide to find space and whip in crosses or combine with teammates. OL Reign’s midfielders did more of that in the second half against the Dash, and if they want their possession-based, attacking-focused play to dominate this year, the midfield is going to have to play more dynamic like that for a full 90 minutes.
An underrated performance from Balcer
Bethany Balcer only got one shot off and had one key pass this match, but that doesn’t quite tell the true story of her performance. According to StatsBomb, Balcer led the team in the number of pressures applied to Houston players passing, receiving or carrying the ball, with 33, and all of those came in OL Reign’s attacking half. The Reign also won the ball 16 of those 33 times, another team high.
Here’s a great example from the 16th minute. Balcer chases down a Dash player dribbling up the field, wins the ball cleanly, and finds an open Angelina in the center of the field. While Angelina’s shot is a little hopeful, that play doesn’t have a chance with Balcer’s effort.
In a system like the Reign’s, you want players winning the ball high up on the field. And, ultimately, you want your teammates to be in a position to take advantage of that regained possession. What the team wasn’t quite able to do against the Dash was convert the chances Balcer was sparking. As Jacob Cristobal reported in the match recap, Leah Pruitt also was a menace on the defensive end and was aggressive in finding shooting opportunities. But it was Balcer who was doing the quiet work. Hopefully, the conversions should come with more game time.
Is this Celia’s breakout year?
OL Reign drafted Celia in the 2018 NWSL Draft, but she didn’t feature for the club that year — instead opting to finish college and earn her bachelor’s degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering (literal rocket scientist, y’all). She went on to sign with the Reign in 2019 and had 10 starts that year, along with representing Spain in the World Cup.
Celia often fell behind Danish right back Theresa Nielsen (now Eslund) in the depth chart that year, but after a standout 2019/20 W-League season in Australia, she looked ready to thrive ahead of the 2020 preseason. The pandemic threw a hurdle in those plans, but after a loan to OL in France last fall, Celia has come back to the Reign looking like a complete player who is poised to have a breakout year.
The 25-year-old led the team in tackles, chances created, and interceptions. And when OL Reign were having their best looks in the second half, a lot of that attack was coming down the right flank — and through Celia specifically.
Of course, I didn’t even hit on the standout performance from Madison Hammond at centerback. She showed that she has clearly been taking notes from Lauren Barnes, bringing the ball down with ease and comfortably moving it around. In fact, she gave a shoutout to Barnes in her post-game press conference, noting how much advice and mentoring the Reign veteran has provided. Hammond is someone who can fill in at centerback or left back, and that versatility will be important this year as the Reign try new formations and lineups to find their groove.
OL Reign head to Portland this Wednesday, April 21. With the Thorns earning 6 points from their first two matches, this is a must-win game if the Reign want a chance to compete for the Challenge Cup title. With international players back for both squads, this game should give fans a more complete picture of what OL Reign is hoping to build for the regular season. Until then, there are pockets from the first game that can provide some excitement.