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Three things we learned from OL Reign v. Utah Royals FC

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Subs change games.

OL Reign v Utah Royals FC

OL Reign earned their first win of the NWSL Challenge Cup with a 1-0 victory over Utah Royals FC in a fairly sloppy game. The Reign once again dominated possession, but neither team looked sharp when passing and Utah seemed the more likely team to score for much of the game. But the Reign made some key adjustments that shifted the momentum in the final 20 minutes and ultimately earned them the full three points.

1. The right subs can make all the difference

Twice now in three games an extremely stagnant Reign attack was given new life by second-half substitutions. Before Bethany Balcer and Rebecca Quinn came into the midfield in the 68th minute, the Reign had only one shot on goal in the entire match and were once again struggling to convert all of their possession into any dangerous chances in the final third. Utah was dominating in chances, particularly in the second half where they had five shots versus only one off-target effort by the Reign. After the subs the Reign absolutely controlled play, with eight consecutive shots and the eventual game-winning goal.

Interestingly, all three of the Reign’s best opportunities came off of a strikingly similar sequence – a player with the ball on the right flank, about 25 yards out, sending a diagonal ball into the box toward the far post at head level. Dani Weatherholt tried it first in the 51st minute, with Darian Jenkins the player making the far post run, but her attempt to nod the ball home went over the crossbar. Nicole Momiki did it twice, first with a ball that glanced off Kristen McNabb’s forehead and went wide of goal, and finally with the assist on Balcer’s game winner.

Many of the same players who came in late and excelled against Utah struggled as starters against the Houston Dash one game prior. So what was the difference? We can debate whether there was a deliberate tactical adjustment by the Reign for this game or whether it’s just easier to run at tired defenders, but there was one very notable change in the midfield which might answer that question. And that brings us to the next point.

2. Balcer brings something different to the midfield

How big was Balcer’s entry into the game? In 23 minutes of play she took six shots (three on target), attempted 23 passes, had three recoveries and made a clearance in her own box. No other Reign player took more than two shots in the entire game. Putting her in at attacking mid solved one of the biggest problems that had been plaguing the Reign through the first 250 minutes of the tournament – how to turn possession in midfield into chances on goal. Rather than hold the ball and wait for the perfect pass as the opposing defense regroups and takes away channels, Balcer opened fire with reckless abandon and forced two good saves from Nicole Barnhart before succeeding on her third attempt.

It’s a position Balcer is familiar with, and one where she’s been very successful in the past. “I played that role in college,” she noted post-game. “It’s one of my more preferred positions. I feel like I get more touches on the ball. Farid really just wanted me to attack and get some shots on goal and produce some offense.”

When asked about the substitution after the game, Benstiti said he wanted to adjust how the team was using the role and shake things up a bit. Although Balcer was ostensibly slotted in as the central attacking mid, he said she played as more of a withdrawn forward.

“[Balcer] can make a difference, she can shoot, she can be strong in the box, she has all the qualities. She’s not a No. 10, but more of a second forward,” Benstiti observed. “She sometimes can organize, but a No. 10 always organizes. [They are] the playmaker, the best player many times. Balcer is playing as a second forward and she was perfect today. I’m very happy for her.”

Although the Reign had a lot of success with this adjustment, don’t expect to see it become the norm. Benstiti said he still prefers to have an outright playmaker in that spot. However, given Jodie Taylor’s lack of success thus far in the center forward role (1 off-target shot and 1 chance created in just over 180 minutes of play) it is probably worth seeing what Balcer can do in that spot in the next game. A big advantage of being able to make five subs is you can make some significant changes if things aren’t working as planned.

One thing that’s clear, even if Balcer’s best position isn’t, is that her breakout 2019 performance wasn’t an anomaly. The team was smart to give her a long-term contract extension.

3. Michelle Betos is back like she was never gone

Returning from a serious injury is never easy, particularly for a goalkeeper recovering from one that impacts your ability to jump. It would have been understandable if Michelle Betos had some hesitancy in her first competitive minutes since early 2019, but right from the opening kick she showed that she still deserves to be in discussion for the starting role.

Betos finished the game with 5 saves, 13 recoveries, one clearance, and an absolutely massive interception in the 15th minute when she charged out of her box to keep Amy Rodriguez from bombing in on goal unopposed.

She changed her number this season, wearing No. 1 for the first time in her professional career in honor of her dad, who wore that number back when he played. Sadly, he never got to see her wear it in a game because he passed a few months ago, shortly after she made the change.

In his post-game comments, Benstiti mentioned just how impressed he has been with her resiliency and ability to overcome difficulties. “If you know Michelle she’s an incredible woman first, and second I’m very happy for her because this last few months were not easy for her,” he commented. “The injury, and Michelle lost her father two months ago and it was really, really difficult, but everybody was with her and we are very happy for Michelle. Because never she was sad, she always smiled and loved, and she was ready today – you saw. I’m very proud.”

The Reign could find themselves with a serious conundrum at the end of this season when it comes time to decide who to protect in the expansion draft. For now, though, Benstiti seems pleased to have two strong goalkeepers who will continue to push each other to improve.