OL Reign is gearing up for the start of the NWSL season, beginning with the second annual Challenge Cup. Last year was a year of trials, adjustments and getting acquainted to a new system, coach and identity, all in the midst of a season upended by a pandemic.
With a year under the helm of Farid Benstiti, the Reign are looking to improve on the club’s seventh-place finish in 2020.
Ride of the Valkyries will be previewing each area of the team ahead of the season opener on April 16, against the Houston Dash. In this preview, we will be looking at the seven defenders listed on the depth chart.
The ageless wonder, Steph Cox returned to competitive soccer in 2019 when a plague of injuries swept through the OL Reign roster. Cox renewed her contract in 2020 for the Challenge Cup and Fall Series, continuing her role as a starter at right back and a leader on the team.
Last year, Cox compiled eight matches, starting in all of them, playing as a mix of left and right back. She picked up one assist during the Fall Series, in the match against the Utah Royals on Sept. 26.
Cox is back again for her third season post-retirement. Due to the youth on the OL Reign roster, she could get moved up to a starting position again, likely at left back. However, the return of Celia Jimenez Delgado from Lyon will provide another versatile player. We’ll get to Celia in a moment.
Whether she’s starting or coming on as a defensive super-sub, Cox has no sign of slowing down.
Lauren Barnes, a life-long member of the Reign, is entering her ninth season with the club. Barnes went on loan during the entire Fall Series, but was with the Reign for the Challenge Cup.
During that tournament, Barnes featured in four games at left centerback. Then, Barnes headed off to Sweden to make 11 appearances with Kristianstads DFF.
Barnes is back in the United States and is likely going to be one of the the starting centerbacks. And with the return of Barnes, the Reign have something they didn’t have in the Fall Series last year: depth.
After some time in Houston, Amber Brooks returned to the Reign in 2020. In her first season in Tacoma, Brooks cemented herself in a starting role, featuring as the right centerback.
With Barnes away on loan, Brooks featured primarily alongside Kristen McNabb in the Fall Series. However, Brooks is a versatile centerback, as she featured as a left centerback during the Challenge Cup, when Alana Cook took up the right spot.
Brooks spent 2020 getting to know her new teammates and a new formation. With a year under her belt, she’ll come back in 2021 looking to reclaim her starting role and have a bigger impact on defense.
The Spanish defender returns to the Reign after a loan to OL Reign partner/parent club, Olympique Lyonnais. She did not make any official match appearances with Lyon, but training with some of the world’s best players doesn’t make for a bad atmosphere.
Celia can be used anywhere on defense, and has also featured in a defensive midfield role for the Reign. Given the defenders currently on the roster, look for her to be the prospective starting right back.
The history maker — Madison Hammond was the first-ever Native American player to feature in the NWSL — got bountiful minutes in the 2020 Fall Series due to the Barnes loan to Sweden. Hammond started two of her four appearances, totaling 195 minutes. Hammond had her first 90-minute match against the Utah Royals on Oct. 17.
Barring any big surprises, Hammond will be the backup to Barnes in 2021. Don’t rule out her stepping in as substitute, though.
Machaela George was signed by the Reign ahead of the 2020 Challenge Cup, but did not appear for the club before being loaned to Fortuna Hjørring in Denmark for the fall. Her training time with the Reign players and knowledge of Benstiti’s system will help, as will getting some playing time in Denmark, where she appeared in eight games and scored three goals in all competitions. She’ll likely be a backup this year, but with significantly more games on the schedule it’s likely that she will see some minutes. The Santa Clara alum made 88 appearances in college, scoring six goals and providing 14 assists.
Sam Hiatt compiled 11 minutes against the Utah Royals as her lone action of 2020. She’s a young player in whom the team clearly sees potential, having signed a new three-year contract in the off-season. Like the other young players it is doubtful she will feature as a starter right away, but she has now had a year to learn Benstiti’s system and can help newcomers on the team learn Benstiti’s formation.
- Only one defender is a risk for international duty: Celia (Spain). The defense should remain pretty much intact this year, barring injuries.
- Kristen McNabb and Quinn have both previously featured as defenders but are currently listed as midfielders for the team, so don’t rule out either of them moving back a line as needed.
- All of the defenders are going to have a new voice behind them, after Michelle Betos was picked up by Louisville in the expansion draft and Casey Murphy was traded to North Carolina. Karen Bardsley is likely going to be the preferred starter heading into the season, but she will be on international duty with England to start the Challenge Cup, meaning either Cosette Morche or Ella Dederick will be behind the defense for at least the first two games.