Fans would be forgiven if they wanted to simply forget OL Reign’s 2-0 loss to the Portland Thorns. At the same time, there were plenty of lessons for the young squad to learn as they round out the Challenge Cup and look toward the 2021 regular season.
First, playing in Portland in front of fans (even at 25% capacity) is hard. This was the first Cascadia rivalry for Tziarra King, Karen Bardsley and Angelina. Getting a wake-up call never feels good, but it’s better when it comes before the points matter in the regular season.
The game also left us and Reign supporters with a few questions. Here, we attempt to answer three of them.
Why is the midfield struggling?
We can talk about the defensive mistakes — because there were plenty of them — but the real problems came from the midfield this game. Let’s break things down a bit. The Reign opted not to put a lot of pressure on Portland’s backline, instead dropping a line to try to prevent balls into Lindsey Horan and the midfield.
This isn’t a bad strategy against the Thorns, but the big problem was the Reign couldn’t make up for the overload in the midfield provided by outside backs Natalia Kuikka and Meghan Klingenberg. They also did a poor job clogging the lanes they were supposed to in this approach. Both Thorns centerbacks were able to play much higher up the field — and they still found open lanes despite OL Reign’s attempt to flood the midfield.
Just a reminder: the above is a passing map for the Thorns centerbacks. Wild! For comparison, here’s the Reign centerback passing map. Much, much deeper.
As a result of the ineffective press from the Reign, the midfield couldn’t win and hold the ball for much of the first half. If they were able to recover, it was deeper in their half, making it hard to transition up the field. OL Reign made 112 passes under pressure compared to 79 for the Thorns.
Just take a look at this passing map for Shirley Cruz, which looks dramatically different than her game against Houston. She had far too many balls from a single point in the field — and that cluster of passes shows how pinned back she was.
As you can see by this game flow chart below, things changed pretty dramatically when Jess Fishlock entered the game, and that’s a promising sign for the rest of the season. But this team can’t rely on one player’s energy and intensity.
g+ GameFlow: NWSL Challenge Cup Group Stage @ThornsFC v @OLReign on April 21, 2021. #BAONPDX #BeBold #PORvRGN pic.twitter.com/SUrhHhVbKG— GameFlow (@GameFlowxPG) April 23, 2021
OL Reign head coach Farid Benstiti must focus on cleaning up the midfield in these final two Challenge Cup matches. That means finding the right players to work together and changing tactics so the team isn’t constantly chasing the play. I think it’s time to try one game in the midfield without Cruz and see what happens. I know it’s a tough call for Benstiti, but they need more players who can cover ground, win balls and find space.
Why didn’t Megan Rapinoe start?
It wasn’t just Fishlock who changed the energy of the game in the final 30 minutes of the match, which was obviously far too late to make an impact. Megan Rapinoe got her first minutes since 2019 with OL Reign. She brought a different look on the wings and got on the end of a stellar cross from Celia, although Pinoe was unable to get a clean header. She had another good look 13 minutes later, forcing a save from Thorns goalkeeper A.D. Franch.
"No no no, not today" - AD#PORvRGN | https://t.co/bONPZnnmCJ | #CC21 pic.twitter.com/fYAaUYteH8— National Women's Soccer League (@NWSL) April 22, 2021
So, why did Benstiti wait so long to put Rapinoe and Fishlock in the game? When it comes to Rapinoe, the answer lies with U.S. Soccer.
As the federation has done in the past with allocated players in the NWSL — including Rose Lavelle last year with the Spirit — Benstiti shared post-match that U.S. Soccer directed the Reign to limit Rapinoe to just 30 minutes. No other national team player had these restrictions. With Rapinoe, the decision was likely made because of her limited game time in the last year and long trip back from Europe. But that doesn’t mean fans can’t be frustrated by the minute restriction.
The potential good news? Rapinoe needs to work her way up to be 90-minutes fit before the Olympics. That means we should expect her minutes with the Reign to keep increasing.
When it comes to Fishlock, it was simply a matter of rest. Fishlock just completed a loan to Reading in England, followed by a national team camp and games with Wales. She needed more time to recover before going 90 minutes — and there's no point risking an injury this early in the year.
What’s the deal with Lauren Barnes?
Fans were rightfully confused to see Lauren Barnes on the bench for the opening match, and even more shocked to see her there again for their second game against Portland. In a game that needed a calming presence in possession, Barnes would have been a huge help. So what’s the deal?
Benstiti was asked about Barnes in his post-match press conference, and he noted that she’s working her way up to full strength after an injury in the offseason that prevented her from training.
“I think Lauren — I spoke with her, she can be on the field but definitely she’s not ready. She came back from injury, she stayed a long time without playing and when she came [to camp] she was still injured, but she’s really better now and we work [with] her to have more power and to figure out this, and when she will be ready I will decide when she comes onto the field,” Benstiti shared.
We’re reached out to the team for more comments on the nature of the injury. Here is what the team’s technical staff provided:
Lu Barnes was available for selection in Wednesday’s match against Portland. That she did not start or play was a decision made by the coaching staff; it was not the result of any injury. During the post-match press conference, Farid mentioned that Lu was injured. He was referring to an injury Lu had when she arrived for preseason training in February. While that injury impacted her ability to fully participate in training sessions in the early stages of our pre-season training, the injury was addressed, and Lu has been fully participating in training sessions for several weeks.
Barnes’ absence has given Madison Hammond an opportunity to fill in at the left centerback role, and she’s been one of the bright spots for the Reign so far this season. She had a tougher challenge this week against the Thorns, but still looked like a player ready to claim a starting role on the backline. This Challenge Cup is a perfect opportunity for younger players like her to get pushed and grow — and if that’s the best thing that comes from the preseason tournament, it’s still a positive development.
In some ways, the pressure is off now for OL Reign’s final two Challenge Cup matches. Portland won the western division and will play in the final, which means the Reign’s final two games against Chicago and Kansas City have nothing on the line aside from an opportunity to try things and grow. Hopefully, the team is able to make simple adjustments that will see them scoring more goals as they head into the regular season.
OL Reign CEO Bill Predmore shared in a virtual season ticket holder event last week that the full regular season schedule should be out before the end of April, and hinted that OL Reign’s first game will likely take place on May 15.