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Match Preview, NWSL Semifinal: OL Reign v. Washington Spirit

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A moment of magic could be the difference-maker — and the Reign have plenty of magicians.

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MikeRussellFoto / Sounder at Heart

It’s the moment that OL Reign fans have been waiting for. On Sunday, November 14, OL Reign hosts an NWSL semifinal match at Cheney Stadium. They will face the Washington Spirit — who finished third in the league — in a match that kicks off at 12 PM PT and will air on CBS Sports Network. International fans can watch the game on Twitch.

It will be OL Reign’s first time hosting a playoff match in Tacoma, although their opponent is a familiar one for the Reign. The Reign have faced the Spirit twice in NWSL playoff action, defeating them in 2014 and 2015 to advance to the championship game. They’ll hope to repeat that outcome again on Sunday, which would book a ticket to Louisville for the final.

The Spirit have gotten the better of the Reign this season, winning the two games they played — both taking place at Cheney Stadium, with one match at the start and the other at the end of the season. But while they’ll be watching film to better understand their opponent, OL Reign aren’t dwelling on those matches because playoff games require a different mindset.

“Those league games are different — different reasonings, different rotations, different mindsets. I don’t think you can take much from those games because a playoff game is: you’re in or you’re out,” midfielder Jess Fishlock shared in a pre-match press conference.

“The playoffs are different games. It’s not about a bigger picture, or putting on a good performance and getting everything right. It’s about winning. And I think the good thing about this group is we have a lot of winners in it,” OL Reign head coach Laura Harvey added.

So what will it take for the Reign to find that winning mindset against a tough Washington Spirit side? Here’s what OL Reign fans need to know ahead of the match.

Spirit — Reign connections

In a league like the NWSL, where trades happen frequently and players move from team to team often, nearly every Reign match has the team going up against former players.

  • The Spirit have only one former Reign player: Paige Nielsen, drafted 25th overall by the Reign in 2016. Nielsen spent most of her time with the Reign in the attack, but settled in comfortably at centerback when she joined the Spirit in 2019.
  • The Reign are now home to two former Spirit players: Rose Lavelle, acquired in a trade with Washington in the offseason, and Quinn, who was selected by the Spirit 3rd overall in the 2018 draft. They started 16 games in Washington during their rookie season, primarily at centerback, before moving on to Paris FC and then returning to the NWSL and settling into a holding midfield role with the Reign.

Washington Spirit’s Formation

The Spirit roll out in a 4-3-3 formation, which can morph into a 4-2-3-1 when they are defending. Most likely to start in the midfield is one of the best holding midfielders in the league, Andi Sullivan, with Dorian Bailey, who probably covers more ground than any player, alongside her when defending. That leaves attacking midfielder Ashley Sanchez at the top of the midfield line. Sanchez could also start on the wing, however, which would likely push Taylor Aylmer — who scored her first goal against the Reign in October — into the midfield.

Up top, Ashley Hatch and Trinity Rodman are guaranteed starters (assuming they didn’t pick up any new knocks), with Hatch as the center forward and Rodman on the wing. If Sanchez isn’t on the other wing, that spot will probably be filled by rookie Tara McKeown.

The backline has had some rotation in the outside back positions, but recently Kelley O'Hara has slotted in at right back, Sam Staab and Emily Sonnett are consistently the two starting centerbacks, and Tegan McGrady has started at left back. Paige Nielsen, who held down a starting centerback position the last few years at Washington, has moved to right back and often starts against teams deploying two forwards. When Nielsen starts, O’Hara moves to the left. Nielsen stays home more defensively, which allows the Spirit to move to a three-back system as O’Hara darts up the left flank. I suspect against a team that can stretch the field like the Reign, they won’t opt for this — but anything is possible in the NWSL playoffs.

What to Watch

A Matter of Space

Both the Spirit and Reign have players that dominate when they can stretch the field of play and operate in space. The smaller dimensions of Cheney Stadium don’t easily allow that. This game will rely on the player or team that can find those tiny pockets and exploit them.

“So many teams that we’ve played of late try and condense a lot of space,” Fishlock said, noting that she’d do the same thing against the Reign with the players they have. The Spirit are really no different. “If you look at Washington, they have some great players as well... give them the space and they will hurt you. I think this game is really going to be about who can manipulate that space the best possible way — in and out of possession.”

A Tough Midfield Battle

As we shared in our preview of the Spirit, they rely a lot on their midfield to manage their mid-block and provide smart defensive cover for the backline. Like many playoff games, this one might be won in the midfield. For Fishlock, that means being the team that solves problems better than their opponent.

“Football is a game of problem-solving. And we have a lot of players on the field that are capable of doing that — of solving problems that are happening on the field.”

The Reign will have to find a way to break the Spirit midfield down and figure them out as the game progresses, something they’ve been focused on in training this week. Of course, Fishlock wouldn’t divulge those training details, but added, “I’m aware of what that looks like and it’s going to be a really fun matchup in there.”

Goodbye, Tactics

In a playoff game, tactical preparation is helpful. But at the end of the game, these win-or-go-home moments come down to either a second of magic or a winning mindset across the team that gives you that small edge over your opponent. “These games are emotional, high-energy, they’re a little bit tactical, but it’s a lot more than that,” said Harvey.

“The thing about this group that’s probably different than any of the other Reign groups that I worked with is that there’s players in this group that have had exposure — either in this team or away from this team — of being winners and knowing what it takes to win,” Harvey said, pointing to the number of players on the team who have won World Cups and Champions League finals a number of times.

However the tactics play out, these are two fun teams who should put on a great show. “The reason why I’m super excited for this weekend is because the Spirit are a great team and it’s going to be a very difficult game for us,” Fishlock shared. “I think it is going to be one of the semifinals to remember.”

Injury Report

OL Reign

OUT: Sam Hiatt (COVID protocols)

Washington Spirit

OUT: Averie Collins (ACL-SEI), Jordan DiBiasi (right hip-SEI), Bayley Feist (ACL-SEI), Tori Huster (left lower leg)

How to Watch

OL Reign kicks off against the Washington Spirit at 12 PM PT on Sunday, November 14. Tickets are still available if you want to catch the semifinal in person. Can’t make it? Watch on CBS Sports Network (the game won’t co-stream on Paramount+, sadly). International viewers can find the game on Twitch (search NWSLOfficial).