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OL Reign succeed in being unpredictable against Portland

It worked in last week’s match, but they still need to be more clinical in front of goal.

Roughly two months into the year, OL Reign have already played the Portland Thorns four times: once in a preseason tournament, twice in the Challenge Cup, and last Friday in regular-season play. While the Reign were unable to find a goal on the road, they managed to keep a clean sheet — never an easy task at Providence Park.

The 0-0 draw is even more impressive considering it was OL Reign’s fourth match in 13 days, with a cross-country trip in the middle. Last week was tough physically, mentally, and emotionally, and the players rose to the challenge.

Here are five takeaways from the Reign’s road draw.

Changing things up against Portland

Knowing this was their fourth match against Portland, and the Cascadia clubs will still face each other one more time in the regular season, OL Reign head coach Laura Harvey wanted to make sure she was unpredictable against her rivals. So Harvey threw something different at the Thorns each match. On Friday, that meant starting Angelina and Rose Lavelle on the wings, where they could roam into space along with Jess Fishlock — reading the game and getting on the ball as much as they could.

“This was something they probably weren’t prepared for, because, why would they? We’ve never really done it. I think with Angelina, Jess, and Rose, you know they’re comfortable on the ball. They’re willing to come and get on the ball, and they can work off each other a little bit,” Harvey said after the match.

While the Reign have tried to be unpredictable against the Thorns this year, Portland’s style of play — especially defensively — has been pretty transparent and consistent. Portland’s back five drops and gets compact really quickly when they’re worried about their opponent’s attack. This tactic limits the Reign’s ability to find Bethany Balcer with crosses into the box. Instead, the match requires the Reign to find those pockets of space, and one way to find that space is to have players like Angelina and Lavelle roam more freely.

“Obviously, Rose has been super dangerous for us in the last couple of weeks in that midfield area, so you have to expect that Portland’s going to try and stop that from happening, and I thought that they were set up to try and stop that. But then she can pick up positions in different areas of the field, and I think she got on it a little bit more in the second half in the areas that we wanted to.”

Lavelle finished the match with three chances created, two shots, and 45 completed passes, with an 82% pass completion rate. While this free-roaming role for Lavelle didn’t result in a goal, the team’s overall performance left Harvey optimistic about her team’s ability to surprise opponents and adapt to new challenges.

Getting Sofia Huerta more involved

While Sofia Huerta has shined in her defensive duties at right back this year, the team hasn’t gotten her as involved in the attack as Harvey would like. That changed against Portland and hopefully continues to progress throughout the season. Huerta finished with a personal-best 55 passes completed and a whopping 132 touches. While her defensive stats were stellar as well — 8 duels won, 16 recoveries, for example — Harvey spoke after the match about the team’s intention to bring Huerta into the attack more.

“I think in the first half we got her on the ball, but we didn’t get her in the areas we really wanted her to be enough, and I thought as the second half went on, she really started to show what an offensive threat she can be. It was definitely something we spoke about — about being able to get Sofia and Lu [Barnes] higher up the field to be able to be an outlet, and when [Portland] play with that back five, they’re going to be the place that we can get the ball to, so I thought we did a decent job of that tonight.”

Bethany Balcer’s evolution

While Bethany Balcer is still one of the most dangerous forwards in the air, that specific skill set isn’t an option for the team every match. It was particularly hard against a compact Portland defense to create enough space for Balcer to operate in the box.

As a result, she was asked to be more of a hold-up player who got involved in the build-up and operated with her back to goal. That tactical approach is evident in her 59 touches and 29 passes in 75 minutes of play, where Balcer also created a chance and had five shots. While this was a specific focus for Friday’s match against the Thorns, Harvey also believes that Balcer has the potential to develop her game even more through this tactical evolution.

“Tonight was very specific for Boats, and she did a great job of it. I think her game has to elevate into being good with her back to goal, and I think in the last couple of games she’s played, her back-to-goal play has been very, very good. You know, she doesn’t have the speed of someone like Ally Watt, but she’s dynamic and she can hold the ball up and she can run the channel, and she’s obviously a threat in the box. So if she can continue to work on that back-to-goal play and link-up play and keep evolving that, then she just adds another dimension to her game.”

Harvey was also clear that she thinks the team has to do more to get Balcer into better goal-scoring opportunities. While she had five shots, only one or two were from plays where Balcer received a ball and had a good look on goal.

Olivia Van der Jagt continues to shine

After getting a last-second start in the Challenge Cup semifinal due to a late scratch for Quinn, Olivia Van der Jagt again was asked to step into a big moment: the first Cascadia rivalry match of her career.

Again, the rookie rose to the occasion. The 22-year-old UW graduate went 90 minutes and finished with 26 successful passes, one shot, and one chance created on the offensive end. Defensively, Van der Jagt was extremely active and partnered with Quinn to protect the backline. She finished with one blocked shot, one clearance, two interceptions, seven recoveries, and won all 5 of her ground duels. Behind Sofia Huerta, Phallon Tullis-Joyce, and Rose Lavelle, Van der Jagt received the fourth-highest FotMob rating of either team.

“I thought she was excellent. She was excellent,” Harvey said after the match.

Megan Rapinoe, after hearing that was Van der Jagt’s first Cascadia match, added, “I was surprised to hear it. Obviously, she slipped right in there and didn’t look out of place at all. These are big games. Big crowd. It just feels like a really important game every time we play against each other, so to have our little hometown hero come slip right in for the first of many, it’s amazing.”

A gritty mentality

Enough has already been said about the tough week the Reign had ahead of this rivalry match. Instead of letting the missed calls, tired legs, and tough scheduling get to them, however, the Reign responded with an incredibly gritty performance. In fact, the Reign’s energy was the first thing Portland Thorns head coach Rhian Wilkinson noted at the start of her post-match comments.

When asked about her thoughts on the match, Wilkinson said, “I think everyone knows that the Reign have had a heck of a run-in, so really impressed with the energy they were able to muster. I kept telling the team they were fatiguing, but they just kept going.”

It’s also worth noting that the Reign were the team that looked like they might find the winning goal toward the last five minutes of the match. They were dictating the pace of the game, which is never easy to do at Providence Park.

“It’s hard coming here. Not only did we not concede late, we looked like the team that were going to win it,” Harvey said. “And I think that that’s a testament to our group, a testament to the players, that even though Portland haven’t had a game for two weeks ... they should be the one on the front foot at the end, and it’s us that are on the front foot at the end.”

In a league that Eugénie Le Sommer and Dzsenifer Marozsán said last year felt like a Champions League final every match, that grit and never-quit mentality is going to serve the Reign well this year. Fortunately, the Reign are getting plenty of rest this week ahead of another three-match week, with all three matches being hosted at Lumen Field.

The first of their three-game homestand is Sunday, May 22, against the Washington Spirit. After losing to the Spirit in the Challenge Cup semifinals — falling in penalties after a missed handball in regulation — the Reign will have a chance for some revenge. But more importantly, a chance for three important points. The game kicks off at 3 PM PT and will air on Paramount+.

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