After an exciting set of group-stage matches, the NWSL Challenge Cup heads into the knockout rounds. OL Reign finished third on the league table and will face the Chicago Red Stars in the Challenge Cup quarterfinals. The match kicks off Saturday, July 18 at 7 PM PT and will stream on CBS All Access (U.S./Canada) or Twitch (International).
The Red Stars finished 6th on the table after the group stage, going 1-2-1. Chicago shares a lot of similarities to OL Reign in this tournament. They have struggled to score, putting just two goals in the back of the net off of 22 shots (Reign has managed 30 shots). They are tough defensively, however, allowing only three goals in four matches.
Here are four things you need to know about OL Reign’s quarterfinal opponent.
The team lines up in a 4-3-3 or 4-1-4-1 formation and relies heavily on its central midfield players to manage the game. You’ll typically see Danny Colaprico, Vanessa DiBernardo, and Morgan Gautrat (formerly Brian) fill those roles. Their midfield is fluid, with not just one player sitting back in the holding midfield role, although Colaprico is often the deepest. All three are great in tight spaces and under pressure, but they are feeling similar pain points as OL Reign. They are struggling to progress the ball forward through the midfield — and have relied more on longer balls to break opponent lines.
In fact, Chicago has the fewest progressive passes so far this tournament. Gautrat is listed as out for the match and Colaprico is questionable, so we’ll see a new player or two in that midfield, which could certainly change the flow for Chicago.
While both the Reign and Red Stars build their attack slowly, I suspect one or both teams are going to try to start with more direct play early on to set a faster tempo for this game. It’s win-or-go-home time now, and neither team can afford to play too cautiously.
Hard to out-duel
As NWSL Analitica points out in a few different ways on Twitter, the Red Stars are the toughest team to go up against in duels. They lead the Challenge Cup in tackles won (76%) and duels won (55%). It’s always been Chicago’s mentality to play with a lot of tenacity and energy, so these numbers aren’t all that surprising. Not to mention, this is a team that has Julie Ertz, who seems to always be positioned in the right place for a tackle or interception. She is one of the hardest players to out-duel or get around.
OL Reign will need to match Chicago’s intensity throughout the game and ensure they’re winning 50/50 balls.
“I think that with the Reign we’ve always loved possession and having the ball — and Farid doesn’t want us to get away from that — but we always need to bring energy and fight and competitiveness and spirit,” OL Reign defender Steph Cox said in a press conference. “That’s kind of the foundation we’re building upon.”
Fullbacks for width
Like the Portland Thorns, Chicago relies on its fullbacks for width in the attack. But it’s not necessarily to get them up the field to whip in crosses. In fact, Chicago only connects 18% of its crosses — the lowest this tournament. The number of attempts has diminished throughout this tournament, and they typically come from a bit deeper.
Instead, Chicago’s outside backs often try to get into the box and get on the end of crosses or cutbacks. In their 1-0 win against the Utah Royals, Chicago’s Casey Short played as both a left back and forward — especially in the second half when the team played more direct.
Short destroyed the Reign last summer with similar runs to the far post. The right side of OL Reign’s defense are going to have to keep a close eye on her runs throughout the match.
Finding the space
Because Chicago likes to gamble with its fullback runs, they can be vulnerable in transition. In their opening match against the Washington Spirit, a lot of the chances Chicago conceded came from though balls into the box. The Spirit found success pulling the Red Stars defense out wide to create those pockets of space in the middle.
NWSL Challenge Cup— Chris Henderson (@chris_awk) July 11, 2020
Chicago Red Stars vs Washington Sport stats and key passes. Chicago on the left, Washington on the right. pic.twitter.com/OcSMJ73vU1
OL Reign have struggled to get touches in the box, and they should pay close attention to how the Spirit succeeded in this match. With Short high up the field, the Spirit created width on both sides — pulling the few remaining Red Stars defenders out with them. With Rose Lavelle charging forward with the ball in the midfield, Julie Ertz had to step to her, leaving Ashley Hatch open for a ball into the box.
This is a poor decision (but wait until the next tweet). Chicago suffered a lot with through balls against Washington, and the choice here would be to leave her line quickly, instead of waiting. #mkot pic.twitter.com/Gf6yzfYXRk— NWSL Analitica (@NwslAnalitica) July 17, 2020
Soccer is a game of space — creating it and closing it down. And it feels like that’s been the big piece missing for the Reign heading into the knockout round. Cox alluded to this in her pre-game press conference. According to her, the final pieces will click when the team finds “an ability to solve problems on the field, find spaces that are open that we can exploit. We want to be more dangerous and efficient in the final third.”
With so much happening for the Reign right now on and off the field, it will be hard to take too much from this tournament, good or bad. The team is trying to integrate a new coach and a number of new players in a World Cup-like tournament. On turf. In hot conditions. In a bubble. While a global pandemic and racial justice protests take place. That is ... a lot.
The reality is these players are putting so much of their soul and heart into the game, even if the results don’t come right away. Their comments throughout the tournament have demonstrated this is a team in it together, with players who really care about one another. That kind of cohesion could take them far, even if it’s not this year.
Chicago Red Stars
OUT: Alyssa Mautz (Left Knee), Arin Wright (Postpartum), Yuki Nagasato (Left Leg), Tierna Davidson (Right Lower Leg), Morgan Gautrat (Right Leg)
QUESTIONABLE: Danielle Colaprico (Right Ankle), Zoe Redei (Right Hip)
OUT: Kelcie Hedge (Right Knee - SEI)