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Reflecting on OL Reign’s loss to Gotham FC

What went right? And what went wrong?

OL Reign v NJ/NY Gotham FC Photo by Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images

If you watched OL Reign’s match against Gotham FC, you’ll probably remember the numerous chances the Reign created and were unable to put in the back of the net. If you simply look at stats from the game, you’ll take the same thing away. The Reign ended the match with 1.74 xG to Gotham’s 0.71. They outshot Gotham 18 to 15 and put six shots on target compared to Gotham’s three.

And yet, OL Reign came away with 0 points, losing 1-0 to the NJ/NY side.

Was this just bad luck and things not falling their way? Or is there something larger at play for the OL Reign side? Here are three things we took from the match.

OL Reign need to take better shots

While OL Reign created plenty of chances — in particular early on through the combination of Megan Rapinoe (6 chances created) and Rose Lavelle (one chance created) — their shot selection still wasn’t the greatest. Take a look at the team’s shooting chart for the match. There’s some good action in the box, certainly, but there’s also a lot of low-percentage shots from outside the box.

This is not the first game where this has occurred. As NWSL Analitica shared, OL Reign is second-to-last in touches in the box. In addition, 30 of the Reign’s 49 shots this season have been taken outside the box. I’m less concerned about touches at this point, considering the Reign played one fewer game than a lot of teams.

It’s also still too early to call this a pattern, and we have to remember that OL Reign had some tough competition to start this season. There’s also not always something inherently wrong with shots outside the box if you’re finishing them. But it’s clear the Reign still haven’t figured out how to best utilize their strikers in the box. Leah Pruitt, who started up top against Gotham, was close to at least three balls that were almost goals — but she was always just one step away from a goal.

Part of this is timing and intuition. Another is the fact that this team still hasn’t had enough consistent time together. Eugénie Le Sommer is bound to make a difference almost immediately, as she reads the game incredibly well. But it still could take some time to see the Reign create more touches and goal-scoring opportunities in the box.

We also have to acknowledge that OL Reign are not utilizing their outside backs as modern fullbacks who push high up the flanks to be part of the attack and send crosses into the box. Celia was doing this for the Reign until she got injured, but now Madison Hammond and Lu Barnes are being utilized as fullbacks and are playing more of a traditional role in this spot. Is this a trend of how Farid Benstiti wants to play, or an issue of personnel at the moment? Only time will tell, but it’s something we hope to explore more in the coming weeks as the Reign get closer to full strength.

The early subs made an impact

Aside from an early injury sub for Jess Fishlock just after halftime, Benstiti opted to use two early subs around the 60th minute. Bethany Balcer and Angelina came on for Pruitt and Shirley Cruz. Benstiti shared after the match that he wanted Angelina and Dani Weatherholt — who came on for Fishlock — to push higher up in the midfield.

You can see from this pass map that they did just that. These visualizations from Arielle Dror are really useful and cool. They also require a little explanation. The colors represent how many goal-scoring chances that player created via their on-ball actions (red and orange being the best). The thicker the line attached to a player, the more value they created when passing and receiving the ball. And the larger the circle, the more passes that player had.

There are a few things to note in this chart. First, the point above about needing to get Pruitt more involved is obvious here. Second, Weatherholt and Angelina did exactly what they were asked — pushing higher in the midfield. In 30 minutes, Angelina had two shots, created one chance, and attempted 32 passes — just eight behind Barnes, who led the team. (She also probably should have received a second yellow after bringing down Carli Lloyd.)

If you take a look at the xG chart above, you’ll also notice that it really started to rise after Benstiti made these subs in the 60th minute. Balcer set up one of the team’s best chances in the 73rd minute — sending a pinpoint pass into the box for Sofia Huerta, who couldn’t keep it on frame.

Benstiti was quick to praise Balcer and noted that if she continues to put in performances like this, she’ll be starting again. He shared that she needed a bit more work at the start of the season to get to her best level, while pointing out all the positives she brings — she’s quick, tall, good in the air, and can create with the ball at her feet. I suspect we’ll see more of Balcer, even with the new players arriving.

Rose Lavelle is good!

While there is still a lot of room for improvement for this team, it should be acknowledged that Rose Lavelle has already been a difference-maker after just two weeks with OL Reign. They didn’t win either game, but Lavelle has shown that she can bring something special to this team in the midfield.

What’s particularly impressive about Lavelle is just how quick she is on the ball. The below clip isn’t even the best example, but her speed seems to increase when she’s dribbling.

At the moment, Lavelle seems to still rely on combination play with Rapinoe, which makes sense given how new she is to the OL Reign squad. The two players led the team in touches (64 for Rapinoe, 60 for Lavelle). When Lavelle is able to get more time with the rest of her teammates ... look out.

An under-discussed part of Lavelle’s game is her ability to win the ball in the midfield. She led the team in tackles against Gotham and the Spirit, helping spark a number of attacks after applying pressure in the middle of the field.

What’s next?

OL Reign did a lot of things right against Gotham FC but the goals just didn’t come. That’s been a common trend for Gotham, who have only given up one goal despite an xG against of 7.72. Sometimes, teams just have a little fortune (and great goalkeeping) on their side. There might be more performances like this for OL Reign as they work to integrate their new world-class players. But the chances they’ve created over the last two matches — even without the goals to show for it — should leave fans excited for more.

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