Some may have considered OL Reign underdogs against the San Diego Wave ahead of their match on Sunday. The Reign had only secured their first win of the season a few days earlier, while the Wave sat at the top of the league table with 12 points. But the Reign dominated at home against the expansion club, and a Rose Lavelle diving header gave them their second straight win of the regular season.
Heading into the weekend, San Diego led the league in goals, shots, and points. They were also the more rested side, having avoided a midweek match. Alex Morgan had six goals already, including one in the Wave’s prior match, and she was averaging five shots per game. Morgan managed just one shot, however, against OL Reign.
So, what worked for the Reign on Sunday? Great defensive organization and relentless midfield pressure. The midfield, in particular, should be credited for preventing dangerous balls forward into Morgan, Jodie Taylor, and Sofia Jakobsson.
One thing that makes San Diego particularly dangerous is their ability to put a lot of pressure on opponents and transition quickly with a vertical pass to the frontline. Case in point: the Wave’s lone goal against North Carolina a week earlier. Taylor Kornieck helps double-team Debinha, pressuring her into a mistake. The midfielder quickly gets her head up, finds Morgan on a through-ball, and the rest is history.
WHO OTHER THAN ALEX MORGAN? ⚡— Attacking Third (@AttackingThird) May 22, 2022
The league's top scorer adds another to her tally pic.twitter.com/1EeDB3c7pE
A long ball from Kornieck — this one over the top — is also how Morgan scored against the Reign in the Challenge Cup.
ALEX MORGAN— Attacking Third (@AttackingThird) April 15, 2022
Gets one back for the Wave pic.twitter.com/z48gOI8yBG
To limit these opportunities, OL Reign head coach Laura Harvey rolled out a more defensive-minded midfield in Quinn, Olivia Van der Jagt, and Jess Fishlock — moving Lavelle to the wing. Harvey went for athleticism over style, with Van der Jagt and Quinn having the task of battling with Kornieck and limiting her time on the ball. Wherever Kornieck went on the field, either Van der Jagt or Quinn were close behind. They limited the midfielder to zero key passes and just nine completed balls into the final third — and in doing so ensured Morgan had the fewest touches of any outfield player to go 90 minutes.
“I think they’re all really athletic, good 1-v-1 defenders. They’re just solid left to right,” San Diego midfielder — and former Reign player — Kristen McNabb said after the match when asked what made OL Reign so difficult to break down. McNabb, a consistent starter when she was at the Reign because of her ability to win duels, uncharacteristically lost the most duels (10) in the match — a testament to the Reign’s tenacious midfield.
The Reign midfield made sure that they limited San Diego’s ability to win first and second balls, something Jess Fishlock noted they needed to do in a pre-match press conference. In addition to limiting Kornieck and the rest of the midfield, they racked up some solid stats of their own. Quinn won six duels and had 12 recoveries, two clearances, and one interception. They also created two chances. Van der Jagt had two shots, one clearance, and eight recoveries. Neither were dispossessed in the match.
“I think Quinn and Olo [Van der Jagt’s nickname] were really big today. Really, really, big. And we needed them to be with the way that San Diego threatens,” Harvey said after the match.
It wasn’t just the 1-v-1 duels in the midfield, however, that limited San Diego to just 0.31 expected goals (xG) — their lowest total so far this season. The way the Reign pressed higher up the field also pushed the Wave into spots that were more favorable to the home side. While OL Reign let the Wave have 54.5% of possession, they were strategic about where they allowed San Diego to hold onto the ball — and where they pressured.
Led by Bethany Balcer as the center forward, the Reign would let San Diego’s centerbacks hold onto the ball while encouraging them to pass wide to their outside backs. Once they did that, wide players Lavelle and Veronica Latsko would quickly close down on the ball — cutting off options inside. From there, outside backs Sofia Huerta and Jimena Lopez were able to prevent San Diego’s wide forwards from getting behind.
You can see the result of the Reign’s defensive approach in San Diego’s pass map — with all four players on the backline having the majority of touches (hence the larger circles), their outside backs positioned really wide, and their limited passes into Kornieck and the frontline (thickness of lines connected to Kornieck).
“They set good traps higher up the pitch that we got caught in,” San Diego forward and former Reign player Jodie Taylor said after the match, referring to the Wave’s inability to get the ball into dangerous spots in their attacking half.
The Reign press would not have worked without the defensive performance from Huerta and Alana Cook, however. Huerta was able to get up the field constantly, creating three chances while still being a menace on the defensive end. Cook, meanwhile, came up huge on the one breakaway Morgan had, calmly blocking her attempt on goal. The two limited Morgan to 32 touches, zero accurate crosses, no chances created, just 11 successful passes, and one shot. She was also dispossessed three times.
It was actually a frustration foul from Morgan — pulling back Ally Watt — that gave the Reign the free kick in their attacking third that led to Lavelle’s diving-header goal.
While the Reign still had issues finishing the many chances they created — they had 1.74 xG, the most of any team this regular season against the Wave — they managed to secure their fourth shutout in a row. It was a complete team performance on the defensive end that allowed the Reign to have the confidence to push forward and create in the attack.
“They’ve got a really good defensive structure,” San Diego head coach Casey Stoney acknowledged after the match. “They minimized what we were able to do to hurt them. They worked very hard defensively, so credit to them on that.”
OL Reign now have a solid six days in between matches, where they hope to continue to improve on the offensive and defensive ends. They face the Chicago Red Stars on the road on Saturday, June 4. That match kicks off at 12 PM PT and will stream exclusively on Twitch.