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No goals, but a strong defensive performance for OL Reign

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Holding North Carolina scoreless isn’t easy.

MikeRussellFoto/SounderAtHeart

If you had told me a year ago that OL Reign would have the better chances against the 2019 shield and title winners North Carolina, I probably would have laughed at you. But that’s what happened in the 2021 regular-season home opener. While OL Reign couldn’t put any of their chances in the back of the net, they looked more dangerous than ever against one of the perennial best teams in the league.

Here are three things we learned from OL Reign’s scoreless draw against the Courage.

Holding North Carolina scoreless isn’t easy!

North Carolina is the reigning 2019 NWSL champions. While they lost a few players this year, they are still a really, really good attacking team. Many sites had them ranked second or third in preseason predictions. OL Reign managed to hold them scoreless. And not just that, they limited the Courage from having many dangerous chances — doing well to clog up the midfield and prevent Debinha from controlling the game.

Debinha had fewer touches, passes and chances created against the Reign than she did in her last three matches against Louisville, Orlando and Gotham FC.

What worked particularly well for OL Reign was the pressure high in the midfield. Like the Portland Thorns, the Courage are a team that provides relentless pressure on their opponents. They swarm the midfield, often playing a 4-4-2 to overload the middle of the field. The Reign opted to match their pressure instead of sitting back, and tried to force the Courage into the middle — where they had players waiting to challenge for the ball.

Below are the recoveries, interceptions and tackles that OL Reign won. They had 30 actions in their attacking half, compared to just 14 against Kansas City and 20 against Portland. A large portion of these actions were also in the middle third, rather than closer to their defensive box. This is especially impressive against a team like North Carolina.

While North Carolina whipped in an enormous 34 crosses, the Reign were compact defensively in the box and were rarely put in dangerous positions to deal with the balls. In fact, only 6 of the Courage’s open-play crosses were successful. Defensively, the far-side outside back often pinched close to their closest centerback — preventing the Courage from slipping behind them easily. This forced North Carolina to play low-percentage balls, which the Reign were able to handle.

It should also be noted the team did well despite losing right back Celia in the 24th minute due to a hamstring problem, as well as Quinn and Shirley Cruz in the midfield ahead of the game due to injuries. While there are still questions about the backline, it was a total team defensive effort against the Courage.

Karen Bardsley has been solid

Remember when OL Reign had zero goalkeepers on their roster? They now have three, with two more coming this summer. So far, only England international Karen Bardsley has suited up between the posts — and she’s settled in seamlessly. Sure, there have been a few miscommunication issues — especially against Portland — but it’s not easy for a goalkeeper to slot into a new squad, and Bardsley has made it look easy.

Bardsley was so smart against the Courage, even when it looked like she might have had a minor leg issue early in the match, with some of her early kicks falling short and her stretching between plays. She knew when to come out on crosses and claim the ball and when to punch the ball away from danger. And she had a fantastic reaction save on a close-range shot from Kristen Hamilton — one of five saves she made all game.

After an injury in the 2019 World Cup that kept her out for about a year (combined with Covid shutdowns), Bardsley was struggling for playing time at Manchester City. The goalkeeper, who had been England’s number one choice for the last decade, joined OL Reign in an attempt to gain more minutes. Her goal: to be one of the lucky 18 to make Team Great Britain for the Olympics this summer. She’s certainly made a case for herself so far.

Bardsley’s loan with OL Reign ends on June 30, at which time French goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi and American Phallon Tullis-Joyce will join the club. Until then, Bardsley continues to be a big reason OL Reign have been competitive so far.

Megan Rapinoe made a big impact

It’s been a while since Megan Rapinoe played a full match with OL Reign. While she was limited again over the weekend — recovering from a small back injury — Rapinoe made an instant impact when she subbed on in the 57th minute. Six of the Reign’s 11 shots came after Rapinoe stepped onto the field, including this one from Rapinoe that blasted off the post. So, so close.

Rapinoe also combined well with teammates, creating two chances in her 33 minutes. With the Reign struggling to create width, her long balls across the field gave the team a new look that rattled the Courage.

On top of that, Rapinoe was providing constant pressure on North Carolina — disrupting plays and winning the ball. She might have only played for one-third of the match, but Rapinoe finished with one tackle, 29 touches, and 16 passes (plus an 81% pass completion rate). It’s felt like a long, long time for Reign fans, but this was the best Rapinoe has looked in a while with the Reign. That — combined with the new faces arriving in the next few weeks — should have you excited.

It’s hard to say how long it will take before Rapinoe may be able to go anything close to 90 minutes, but having a player of her caliber off the bench only means good things for this team. She and the Reign will have another big test this weekend, as the team faces the Portland Thorns on the road. That match against the Thorns, who stomped all over Chicago in a 5-0 win this weekend, will kick off at 3 PM PT on Sunday, May 23 and will air on CBS Sports Network.