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Match Preview: OL Reign v. Washington Spirit

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The Reign are up against a Spirit team on the rise.

Nikita Taparia/SounderAtHeart

OL Reign conclude their three-games-in-seven-days run on Saturday with a match against third-place Washington Spirit. The home match — the team’s last of the regular season — kicks off at 7 PM PT at Cheney Stadium and will stream on Paramount+ for fans in the U.S. and Twitch for international viewers.

A month ago, the Washington Spirit looked like a team that might fall short of a playoff spot. They went through a coaching transition after news emerged about the toxic environment that Richie Burke created for players and then had to forfeit back-to-back games due to COVID-19 protocol breaches. However, the Spirit come into this match undefeated in their last four games and just took down the North Carolina Courage, 2-1, in a midweek match.

The 12-7-3 OL Reign are still in charge of their playoff destiny after a midweek draw with Portland. If they win on Saturday, they are guaranteed a top-two spot — giving them a bye during the first round of playoffs and a home semifinal match. The 9-7-6 Spirit, meanwhile, also still have a slim chance at securing a top-two spot. They are six points behind the Reign with two remaining games and will be fighting hard to secure a playoff spot and give themselves a shot at a first-round bye.

Here’s what OL Reign fans need to know ahead of the penultimate regular-season match.

Washington’s formation

Washington typically rolls out a 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3 formation. Aubrey Bledsoe holds down the goalkeeper position, and the backline is home to two USWNT players. After the Olympics concluded, former Reign player Paige Nielsen moved from centerback to right back to close out this season. Emily Sonnett slotted in alongside the left-footed Sam Staab at centerback, while Kelley O’Hara most often starts at left back — with Tegan McGrady getting time behind O’Hara in that spot in recent weeks.

Tori Huster and Dorian Bailey started the mid-week match as the more defensive-minded midfielders. Huster is a versatile veteran who continues to prove herself year after year, while Bailey covers more ground than just about anyone in midfield and averages an 83% pass completion rate — one of the highest for midfielders in the league. One of those two could be replaced by USWNT midfielder Andi Sullivan, who was rested against North Carolina due to a minor knee injury.

First-round 2020 draft pick Ashley Sanchez has been given the center attacking midfielder role, although she has a lot of freedom to pull wide and sometimes shifts into a wing position during matches. She’s crafty and smart, and the Reign will need to get a body on her to limit her shot-creating chances.

In the attack, Trinity Rodman and Ashley Hatch have been the Spirit’s big goal-scorers. Hatch is tied with Bethany Balcer in the Golden Boot race with nine goals, while Rodman has five goals and five assists. The 19-year-old Rodman should be in contention for the NWSL Best XI, as she’s been one of the most consistent and dynamic players for the Spirit this year. She’s hard to dispossess, has speed and strength, and has a knack for getting one touch of separation to create shots. Hatch, meanwhile, is a true No. 9 — someone who looks to get in behind defenses, win headers, and pounce on balls in the box.

What to watch

  • Better, consistent passing: The Spirit like to build out of the back and possess the ball. So do OL Reign, but the team hasn’t quite clicked the last two matches. What has proven to be a menacing midfield looked out of sorts in the first half against Portland — missing simple passes and looking out of sync with teammates. The team had a 71.8% pass completion rate, their lowest in quite a while. With an international break next week, and just one regular-season match remaining after this, it will be important for the team to find their rhythm once again.
  • A better start: OL Reign have been forced to chase the game in three of the last four matches they’ve played. That includes conceding two early goals in their most recent matches against Portland (3rd minute) and Chicago (14th minute). When OL Reign score first, they’re incredibly hard to beat. At the same time, the team has shown they can be resilient, which is something they’ll need heading into the playoffs. “There were things we needed to get better at [against Portland] but we reduced them to limited chances and I think that was credit to the backline. I think the resiliency of this group was that we came out in the second half and flipped the tide a little bit on them,” said head coach Laura Harvey.
  • Prevent, prevent, prevent: The Spirit have speedy attackers who are good at creating space on the dribble and getting in behind defenses. The smaller dimensions of Cheney Stadium should play in OL Reign’s favor, but the midfield and team defense will still need to make sure they aren’t getting beat. That starts with applying lots of pressure in the midfield to prevent balls to the frontline and preventing Washington’s fullbacks from pushing high up the flanks. It also means not caving to the Spirit’s early pressure and sitting deep. The Reign need to focus on prevention. They also need to set the tone for the match from the beginning.
  • BONUS: Sell the team, Steve: In what is bound to be an ongoing theme over these next few weeks, there’s more than just the game on the minds of players heading into this match. Spirit players sent a united message to their current ownership, which Washington Post stories allege is also responsible for the toxic workplace. In a letter, they called on Steve Baldwin to sell his ownership stake to co-owner Y. Michele Kang. “The person we trust is Michele,” the statement reads. “She continuously puts players’ needs and interests first. She listens. She believes this can be a profitable business and you have always said you intended to hand the team over to female ownership. That moment is now.”

Injury Report

OL REIGN

OUT: Rosie White (Excused Absence)

WASHINGTON SPIRIT

OUT: Averie Collins (ACL-SEI), Jordan DiBiasi (right hip-SEI), Bayley Feist (ACL-SEI)

QUESTIONABLE: Andi Sullivan (left knee)

How to Watch

OL Reign kicks off at Cheney Stadium against the Washington Spirit at 7 PM PT on Saturday, October 16. The game will stream on Paramount+ for fans in the U.S. and Twitch for international viewers.