Reign FC started their 2019 season with a road trip to face the Houston Dash, leaving with a point after a 1-1 draw. Overall, the game felt very much like you might expect for a season opener, with both teams looking a bit rusty, and Reign FC players in particular struggling to connect passes effectively and failing to move in anticipation of passes. Although the team only conceded one goal due to these errors, Houston had several other dangerous opportunities that were only denied by quality goalkeeping or last-ditch tackles and blocks.
The team rolled out in its typical 4-3-3 / 4-2-3-1 formation, with most of the width provided by the fullbacks pressing forward, and the midfield forming a more central triangle. However, a number of expected starters were unavailable due to injury or illness, forcing Reign FC head coach Vlatko Andonovski into some tough decisions for his starting lineup, including dropping Shea Groom from her usual attacking role into midfield. These challenges were compounded by the team needing to make two injury substitutions in the first half, which hamstrung Andonovski’s ability to make tactical subs in the second half.
As a reminder, my rating system goes from 1-10, where 1 is a performance so poor that the player should not play again, 4 is a replacement level NWSL player, 6 is an average NWSL starter, 9 is an all-star performance, and 10 is an MVP-quality performance. These ratings take into account where we are in the season, so the expectation of what constitutes a starting-level performance will go up as the season progresses.
Michelle Betos (7 saves, 1 goal conceded; 8; PotM) – Betos was asked to do a lot this game, with the Reign defense giving up an atypical number of breakaway chances on through balls and speedy direct play. Betos read those plays well, often coming far off her line to clear the danger, and made a couple of huge saves, most notably denying Rachael Daly on a pair of chances in the 13th and 49th minutes, and diving to block Veronica Latsko’s point-blank shot in the waning moments of the game. It’s still early, but her distribution also looks to be improved this season, with none of her punts or goal kicks sailing out of bounds or falling short of their intended target. There’s not much to be said about the goal she conceded — it was a poor turnover by the Reign defense that Nichelle Prince pounced on and quickly lofted into the corner, before Betos could be reasonably expected to react.
Celia Jimenez Delgado (6) – Celia had a very busy NWSL debut, leading the team in touches with 82. In the first half in particular, she made some aggressive runs up the line with the ball, and worked well with Darian Jenkins as the two interchanged play along the left flank. Of particular note, she chased down and saved a heavily overhit pass in the 38th minute which led to a nice cross into the box. She wasn’t as active in the second half after the Reign adjusted their midfield formation and Elise Kellond-Knight handled more of the attacking duties on that side, but her defense remained solid and she limited danger on her side.
Lauren Barnes (5), Megan Oyster (off 40’; 5) & Kristen McNabb (on 40’, caution 79’; 4) – When the Dash broke through the Reign defensive line, more often than not it was Daly making a run between the centerbacks and cutting behind them before chasing down a pass. All three Reign centerbacks were guilty at different points of watching Daly run past them and then assuming their partner would track her, but communication was lacking, and in the 49th minute Daly juked both Barnes and McNabb, leading to a huge breakaway opportunity. Passing was also unusually poor for the trio, with Barnes in particular connecting on a surprisingly low 67% of her passes.
Theresa Nielsen (4) – I’m not sure if it was due to all of her travel for international duty or something else, but Theresa seemed a step off for much of the game. She co-led the team in tackles with four, but finished with a shockingly low 26 pass attempts and only completed 58% of them. She also had significant responsibility for the Dash goal – she didn’t to step toward an Allie Long pass and failed to notice Prince closing in rapidly to intercept the ball. She had a few bright moments in the second half, including strongly bodying Kealia Ohai off the ball in the box in the 60th minute to snuff out a Dash scoring opportunity, but the rust was apparent through most of the game.
Allie Long (4) – With her usual partners from last year unavailable, Long was tasked with carrying a lot of the workload for a makeshift midfield. In the first half she was in her more typical defensive mid role, dropping back to help the defense build play out of the back. However, the Dash used a high press which limited the effectiveness of that approach, and she was almost invisible for long stretches. She finished with a stunningly low 24 touches, which is less than half of the lowest amount of touches she recorded in a game in 2018. After halftime, the team tried to get Long more involved by having Morgan Andrews drop further back, and she made some positive contributions in the attacking phase with a nice give-and-go sequence to put Jodie Taylor in on goal in the 65th minute, and to get herself onto the end of a great cross in the 82nd minute, which she unfortunately hit far over the bar. The team will need her to be significantly involved in future games, especially against opponents that opt to use a high press.
Morgan Andrews (5) – Andrews put in a serviceable, if not spectacular performance in midfield. She had far more touches than anyone else in midfield, but her passing was dismal (only 56% of her 45 passes found a teammate). She created a few chances, but the team’s finishing wasn’t great so they didn’t lead to anything of note. In the second half she dropped into a defensive midfield role and got caught ball watching on defense when Sofia Huerta picked up a loose ball near the top of the box in the 76th minute and blasted a shot off the post.
Shea Groom (5) – Between injuries, illness and fitness decisions, Reign FC was without a significant number of midfielders for their opening match, meaning that Groom was asked to start the game in midfield instead of her more accustomed forward role. She only played there for 25 minutes before Jasmyne Spencer’s injury forced the team to make an early substitution, at which point Groom moved into Spencer’s spot in the attacking band. She finished with a team-high three shots but couldn’t get any of them on frame, and had a fantastic throughball to Jodie Taylor in the 52nd minute to start a breakaway chance, but Taylor’s first touch was too heavy and Jane Campbell raced out to clear the danger.
Darian Jenkins (goal 58’, off 86’; 7) – Jenkins had a memorable debut for Reign FC, which should help assuage fears of how the team will find attacking creativity when their international stars are gone this summer for the World Cup. She faced off against Taylor Comeau for most of the game and was comfortable making runs at her with the ball, as well as staying wide and finding pockets of space along the touch line to receive passes. In addition to the goal and two shots, she put in several dangerous crosses that unfortunately eluded her teammates. She showed a great deal of comfort with the ball at her feet in tight quarters, much like Elizabeth Addo last year, and frequently made little moves and cuts that would gain her a pocket of space to make a cross or shot, including on her goal and in the 82nd minute when she cut in on the end line and put a gorgeous cross onto Long’s foot in the box.
There were times where her unfamiliarity with her teammates showed, particularly when she made some runs that were at odds with the pass being played to her. Some more practice time and game experience should sort out those minor quibbles. I was hoping Vlatko Andonovski would move her centrally and sub off Taylor near the end, but Jenkins had some issues with leg cramps which instead ended her day a few minutes early.
Jasmyne Spencer (off 26’; rating incomplete) – Spencer’s season has sadly ended before it could even truly begin after a non-contact injury required her to be stretchered off the field. The team has just confirmed she suffered an ACL tear. We hope for the best and for a speedy recovery.
Jodie Taylor (assist 58’, PK miss 90+3’; 5) – Taylor has always been a bit of a hot-and-cold player, and unfortunately in this game she was fairly cold. She finished with only two shots – one of which was her poorly taken penalty – and was whistled for offside four times when she was just a step ahead of what could have been a good pass to start an attack. After playing through injury at the end of last season and spending most of the off-season rehabbing, she might still be shaking off some rust and getting her timing back, so hopefully these challenges will resolve themselves before she departs for England camp in a month or so. On the positive side, she had great vision to spot Jenkins making an open run in the lead-up to the Reign goal, and also showed good fitness and willingness to continue pressing high all the way up to the final whistle, which led to Campbell’s turnover and the penalty call… but the less said about the ensuing kick, the better.
Elise Kellond-Knight (on 26’; 6) – Kellond-Knight was undoubtedly not expecting to come on so early, if at all, and it showed in her first-half performance where she and the rest of the Reign midfield looked unsettled and not quite sure who was tasked with which roles. After halftime the team appeared to have sorted this out, with Andrews playing more defensively while Long and Kellond-Knight were further up the pitch, and everyone looked far more comfortable. Aside from a sloppy pass directly to Prince in the defensive third in the 60th minute, Kellond-Knight looked comfortable and served as a stabilizing influence to connect passes and hold the ball, which helped improve Reign FC’s possession numbers. She also had a fantastic cross from the corner in the 64th minute that skimmed just inches over Groom’s head at the far post.
Kristen McNabb – Although she came on as a substitute in the 40th minute, I have discussed her with the other centerbacks above because her positives and negatives generally mirrored those of the others.
Bethany Balcer (on 86’; incomplete) – Balcer made her pro debut just one day after signing with the team. She had very limited time to make an impact on the game, but Andonovski clearly thinks highly enough of her that we’ll surely be seeing more in the future.
Karen Abt (7) – This was a fairly calm and clean game, with few rough fouls or questionable calls. I had no complaints about any of the three bookings issued – one for an obvious tactical foul by Sophie Schmidt, one for a clear reckless foul by McNabb, and one for dissent by Christine Nairn during the penalty call sequence. The penalty itself was iffy, but it does appear that Campbell clipped Taylor’s foot, and Taylor was savvy enough to force a decision by going to ground. There was no definitive replay angle to confirm how much contact there was, but given the circumstances and the fact that the AR also had a good angle to see the play, the call looked to be correct.
Who was your Reign FC Player of the Match?
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Celia Jimenez Delgado
Other (mention in comments)