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Three things we learned from OL Reign’s Challenge Cup performance

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This team can — and should — score lots of goals.

Chicago Red Stars v OL Reign Photo by Jane Gershovich/ISI Photos/Getty Images

The 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup wrapped up this weekend, with the Portland Thorns defeating NJ/NY Gotham FC on penalties. While OL Reign missed out on the championship title, the team earned seven points in four games and saw five different players score goals.

Now, the players have their eyes clearly set on the next phase: a 24-game regular season that kicks off this Saturday with a home match at Cheney Stadium. That match against the North Carolina Courage begins at 7 PM PT and will stream exclusively on Twitch.

Ahead of the first match of the 2021 regular season, let’s look back at OL Reign’s Challenge Cup performance. Here are three things we’re taking away from the preseason tournament.

This team can — and should — score plenty of goals

While OL Reign struggled to score in the opening two matches, they finished their chances in the final two games — scoring 5 goals. On an even more encouraging note, five different players scored those goals: Jess Fishlock, Tziarra King, Leah Pruitt, Sofia Huerta, and Celia Jimenez Delgado.

There are plenty of players who can be dangerous in front of goal. In addition to the Challenge Cup goal-scorers above, Megan Rapinoe and Bethany Balcer have been the team’s leading scorers in the last few seasons. And there are still credible rumors that the all-time leading goalscorer for France and Lyon, Eugenie Le Sommer, will be joining the Reign. A top recruit out of college, Ally Watt, should also be recovered from an ACL tear and ready to join the squad later this summer.

This team can and should be scoring plenty of goals, but the Challenge Cup exposed one area they still need to correct in the attack: creating more chances. The team didn’t get into the 18-yard-box enough in each of their four Challenge Cup matches. In fact, against Chicago — when the team scored 3 goals — they only had eight possessions reach the Red Stars’ box.

Even in matches where the Reign had more possession, they still didn’t get into the final third often enough. At the same time, according to FBref, the Reign were second beyond just Portland in passes into the 18-yard-box per 90, led the league in completed crosses per 90, and were near the middle in progressive passes per 90. It might not have felt like it at all times, but the Reign were a pretty dangerous attacking team.

When Dzsenifer Marozsan joins the team in June, and with the national team players getting more time with the squad, the attack should get even more dynamic pretty quickly. There’s also still a possibility Rose Lavelle joins the Reign after her contract with Manchester City concluded this week. There is speculation she might join Lyon after the Olympics, but sources have also indicated she’s likely to join the Reign in Tacoma.

Certainly, with a few more attacking pieces in place in the midfield, this team can be goal-dangerous from all spots on the field. We might have to give it some time, but this should be a F-U-N attack.

Plenty of things to clean up

The Reign gave up the same number of goals they scored: five in four matches. And they allowed Portland to have plenty more chances than the two goals they ultimately scored. The team has things to clean up on the defensive end to keep the scorelines tight in the regular season.

Most importantly, they have to take better care of the ball. We already covered this topic after OL Reign’s match against Chicago, but a large percentage of the chances they gave up throughout the tournament came from giveaways.

The team has been working these last few weeks to correct that. It’s not just about choosing the safe passes and getting into good pockets to receive the ball. It’s also about how the team is positioned to stop their opponents in transition. Giveaways are going to happen, but the team has to be able to quickly collapse and close down attacking lanes.

Positioned well for the long haul

While OL Reign didn’t have the Challenge Cup performance they wanted, they’re about to enter a long regular season that doesn’t conclude until late October. And they are well-positioned to peak when it matters, in those final months over the fall.

As Megan Rapinoe said on The Cooligans podcast, “The expectations are a championship. They always are, but this year, we have a realistic chance of getting there — and that has to be the standard.”

The NWSL isn’t taking an Olympic break this year, which means every team will lose players for the July 24-Aug. 5 tournament — with most countries playing friendlies in advance of the Olympic games. OL Reign will likely lose Rapinoe, Quinn, Nicole Momiki, and Rosie White during that time, but they’ll have plenty of talent in Tacoma to compete against the rest of the league.

Young players like Madison Hammond, Leah Pruitt, and Tziarra King showed they can be key contributors on a day-to-day basis — and in particular when the squad loses players due to international call-ups. Celia, Quinn, and Sofia Huerta all look like players who are ready to take the next step in their games this year. OL Reign CEO Bill Predmore also confirmed that the club has 2-3 more promising signings to announce this month. So while it might not click immediately, this team should be firing on all cylinders in the latter half of the season.

“We need some time to make sure we get together and we’re on the same page. And that is going to take a little bit of time,” said OL Reign midfielder Jess Fishlock. “But already, even over these last couple of weeks, I feel we’ve made huge strides as a team and as a group. And I’m really excited for the season. The season’s a long season. I have no doubt that when it matters, we’re going to peak right at the right time. And I’m really excited to see what that looks like.”

Us too, Jess. Us too.

For now, OL Reign fans have their first opportunity to see what the club can do in the regular season this weekend. The Reign will face a North Carolina side that continued to score loads of goals during the Challenge Cup (9) while also averaging two goals against per game. The game kicks off May 15 at 7 PM at Cheney Stadium.