It still seems hard to believe, but OL Reign’s 0-0 draw against the Portland Thorns on Monday earned them the #3 seed going into the knockout rounds of the NWSL Challenge Cup. Perhaps more importantly, it means they will avoid a potential encounter with the North Carolina Courage until the final, should both teams make it that far.
The game against Portland wasn’t the most exciting affair, and the Reign knew they would finish in the top half of the table with any result, while the Thorns faced the more dire situation of needing to win to escape being the bottom seed. That said, the Thorns were missing a number of key players (but also came into the game with a lot more rest). It’s hard to read too much into each team’s performance, so let’s look at the bigger picture as the tournament enters the knockout round.
1. Emotional wellbeing is critical
Bethany Balcer left the game in the 40th minute and she struggled with what appeared to be breathing difficulties once she got to the sideline. Updates through the remainder of the game indicated that she was undergoing evaluation. It was only after the match that she revealed the problems were due to a panic attack, something Balcer has experienced a few other times in the past.
Although ultimately there was no physical injury, often it’s far too easy to forget about mental wellbeing and stress and how those can influence physical performance. Every team and every player is dealing with the stresses of this tournament in a different way. Results on the field matter and can influence mood, but also the activities and connections the players and staff are able to maintain with the outside world play a huge part.
Aside from training and games, the players and staff are mostly cooped up at the tournament hotel, and as an added precaution teams are isolated from one another beyond occasional conversation as they pass in the lobby. The Reign have felt this isolation even more acutely since they’ve been away from home for an extra month due to their preseason trip to Montana.
Small gestures can make a big difference for the players and staff – the virtual watch parties are shown on the stadium scoreboard throughout each game, many of the players are very active on social media, and fans have been sponsoring coffee and treat purchases for the teams in a gesture of support since they can’t buy tickets to be there in person.
Those things are being noticed and are valued. “It’s always great to see our supporters supporting us, no matter where we are playing,” said Allie Long. “I wish you could hear the fans, but you can’t. Regardless, any fan support is amazing and I hope we get more and more as the tournament continues.”
I won’t spend paragraphs repeating some of the brilliant things that have already been written on the topic of mental health during the tournament, but I strongly encourage you to read them.
2. You can’t lose if you don’t concede
A lot of the talk surrounding the Reign in this tournament has been focused on their seeming allergy to getting the ball forward in attack, and concomitant lack of goals. Their one goal scored was the fewest in the tournament, making it even more miraculous that the team finished third. However, the Reign also conceded the second fewest goals (two, behind only North Carolina’s single goal conceded) and earned three shutouts. Being tough to beat has been part of the Reign’s DNA for many years, and it looks like that mentality has carried forward into the Farid Benstiti era.
xG against, or "the goals expected to concede". Courage also leads here, with 2.69 (conceding just one). Utah has 3.31, OL Reign 3.61, Portland 3.94, Sky Blue 4.16, Washington 4.43, Houston 4.48, Chicago 5.28 #NWSLChallengeCup pic.twitter.com/IxuyHAJoRt— NWSL Analitica (@NwslAnalitica) July 14, 2020
The team outperformed their expected goals against (xGA) by 1.61 goals, which was also among the best in the tournament. Perhaps more remarkable this year is that the feat has been accomplished with significant rotation on defense. No defender has appeared in every match, and the centerback pairing has rotated each game. That sort of rotation (plus changing the goalkeeper!) is usually recipe for disaster, but other than a sloppy showing against the Dash the Reign defense has held strong.
3. It’s time to get more goal hungry
While it’s true that you can’t lose if you don’t concede, it’s also exceptionally hard to advance in a knockout tournament if you don’t put the ball in the net. Although I snarked a bit about the Reign struggling to get forward in attack, the stats don’t entirely bear that out. The team finished with an xG of 4.23, fifth-best in the tournament, but was somewhat unlucky that a lot of their good shots came against some of the tournament’s best goalkeepers in Kailen Sheridan and Bella Bixby.
Where the team has struggled is in tempo. They’re very slow in their buildup play – only Chicago has been slower. We keep seeing flashes of what the Reign can do when they play more aggressively and take risks with their passing, but putting that together for a full 90 minutes has been a challenge.
The team with the quickest match tempo (this is related to the speed of passes) is Sky Blue with 17.9, followed by the Utah Royals(16.5). The slowest team in the buildup is Chicago Red Stars (14.7) followed by Seattle Reign (15.8)#NWSLChallengeCup #NWSL— NWSL Analitica (@NwslAnalitica) July 15, 2020
One big wildcard for the quarterfinal is how much Sofia Huerta and Jess Fishlock can play. Huerta took two shots and created two chances in her hour against the Thorns, and Fishlock could be the spark and the vocal field marshal the team needs in the midfield to expedite their play.
Another surprising revelation in attack has been Taylor Smith. Normally a fullback, Smith has seen most of her time in this tournament as a wide forward. In only 50 minutes on Monday, Smith took four shots and forced Bixby into two diving saves. It’s not a role that she and the team envisioned before the tournament, but one that was born of necessity – Smith needs minutes to get her match fitness back, while the team’s other fullbacks have been among the most reliable players on the pitch and least in need of substitutions.
“It wasn’t expected at all,” Smith said of playing further up the pitch, “but since my long injury I just need minutes and I’m happy to get them anywhere.”
Smith only has two goals in her pro career – both during her rookie season with the WNY Flash – but her play up top in this tournament has been impressive and could earn her yet more minutes there, especially if the team is chasing a goal.