The runway to the playoffs is another game shorter, with only two games left in the 2023 NWSL regular season. In the second-to-last home game of the regular season OL Reign drew North Carolina Courage, 1-1.
Megan Rapinoe and Bethany Balcer combined on a corner in the 21st minute to give the Reign a lead, and for a little while there was a hope that this could be the game where the team shook off their scoring troubles and pushed their way up the table. They’d gotten some luck when a Courage attack in the second minute resulted in a shot off of the post rather than a tap-in for Kerolin, and the team had seemingly made good use of their fortune. 22 minutes later Kerolin got her goal after an adventurous play from Reign goalkeeper Claudia Dickey left her with an entire half to run into, then in stoppage time Alana Cook saw Kerolin running at Dickey and did what she had to to protect her keeper.
Cook took Kerolin down from behind just outside the box, earning a red card but preventing what was sure to be a goal. From that moment on, a draw became a very good result. The team dug in and fought for the point, with Dickey making an impressive kick save and a few more mundane ones to keep the score level, and they even generated a couple opportunities to take a lead. A win would have been great, but after the recent results this kind of gutted-out result could galvanize the squad and serve as a stepping stone to better ones.
WHAT WORKED: MEGAN RAPINOE’S SERVICE TO BETHANY BALCER’S NOGGIN
When your team has struggled to score goals, and as a result struggled to get positive results, dominating on set pieces can be an excellent balm for what ails you. With OL Reign coming into this match having lost their last two games and four of their last five games, and only having two goals to their names in that stretch, a goal from a corner to get the game started against the Courage was exactly what they needed.
Balcer’s textbook header on Rapinoe’s beautiful corner was her fourth headed goal of the season and marked a league-leading 10th goal from a header for the team. When you have individual skills like Balcer’s heading and general presence in the box, and Rapinoe’s service from just about any kind of situation inside the opponent’s half, it’s no surprise that the Reign would be such a threat in the air or on set pieces. The team still needs to find their shooting boots, but until they do the ability to consistently hurt teams like they did here can go a long way.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK: DEFENSIVE ORGANIZATION
Kerolin caused the Reign defense problems throughout the night, and probably should have scored an opening goal in the second minute of the game, but her first-time effort hit the post and saved Claudia Dickey and her defense some blushes.
Late in the half there would be no such luck, despite a review for offside that seemed borderline but where ultimately there wasn’t enough to overturn the call on the field. On the actual goal Claudia Dickey was directly responsible, as she took a serious gamble by coming WAY out to try to beat Kerolin to a direct ball over the top and lost out. Lauren Barnes nearly had a telling intervention, but couldn’t quite get the touch and ultimately the scrambling defense was left picking the ball out of the net. For all of Dickey’s qualities, the departure of Phallon Tullis-Joyce left the Reign’s defense without a clear organizer, and while Dickey may some day become that player she’s not there yet, and her greenness was on display on the opening goal.
The lack of organization also, although less directly, contributed to Alana Cook’s red card at the end of the first half, as the entire defense pushed high enough to give Kerolin all the space in the world to run onto and left Cook chasing with no choice but to take the red and prevent a likely second goal for North Carolina’s star attacker.
WHAT WORKED: EMILY SONNETT, CENTERBACK???
There is a secret whispered in quiet rooms far away from the prying ears of Laura Harvey or the USWNT staff. That secret is that Emily Sonnett isn’t really a midfielder, but is at her best when played as a defender. Following on from the issues of the first half with organization, a change was forced upon Harvey by Cook’s sending off late in the first half. To start the second half Sonnett dropped back a line to replace Cook, and despite the Reign being down a player things were looking a bit better.
Although North Carolina made good use of their player advantage – they had 72% of possession and took 18 shots to Seattle’s four in the second half, as compared to 66% in the first half and a shot advantage of seven to one – but excluding a shot that hit the crossbar from Manaka Matsukubo, and a chance that forced an excellent kick save from Dickey, the Reign defense limited their opponents to relatively simple shots that were handled easily by the GK. Sonnett surely wasn’t the only cause for the performance, but she could clearly be seen directing teammates and organizing the defense. It’s probably worth letting her run it back from the start on Friday against the Washington Spirit.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK: PASSING TO TEAMMATES
Possession for its own sake isn’t worth much, and teams can certainly play good, entertaining and exciting football with limited possession and low pass completion rates. There’s usually an intentionality to the entertainment and effectiveness of those approaches, though, and that didn’t necessarily seem to be the case.
You might know going into a game against the Courage that they want the ball, and they’re pretty good at making sure that they’re going to keep it. You can accept that, invite their possession, and try to dictate where it takes place and hit on the counter when you’re able to turn them over, but that’s not exactly what the Reign did. They did play a lot of direct passes – 20 of their 199 accurate passes were long balls – but it wasn’t just ambitious or progressive passes that weren’t connecting. More than a few promising opportunities to possess the ball or get into the attack were cut short when what should have been simple passes were either picked off or played almost directly to players in white as the Reign completed a pretty miserable 66% of their passes. The Reign had an uphill battle, and made it that much harder by failing to connect with their teammates.
FOREVER REIGN, ETERNALLY RAPINOE
You’ve heard plenty of times that Megan Rapinoe’s final regular season home game in NWSL is this Friday, October 6, when the Reign host the Washington Spirit. It’s a big game, even outside of the send-off opportunity for one of the club, league, and country’s greatest players. The Reign and Spirit sit one point apart in the standings – the Reign are in 6th with 28 points while the Spirit are in 5th with 29 – and the chasing pack are close behind with the Houston Dash on 26 points and Orlando Pride and Angel City FC each on 25, and one of those two could jump to 28 after they play on Monday. That final Reign home game is practically a playoff game, just two weeks early.
The Reign will be shorthanded, playing without Alana Cook, as well as potentially Sofia Huerta and Rose Lavelle, who both missed the Courage game due to injury. To compound things Jess Fishlock seemed to be carrying a knock – at best – from early on, and could be limited in a must-win match on Friday. The team will need every voice in the stadium to help propel them forward, and what better way to send Rapinoe off and maybe even earn a chance to play one last time in front of the home fans in the playoffs.