The last time OL Reign faced the North Carolina Courage was the 2019 NWSL semifinal match — a thrilling game that included a late equalizer for the Reign that sent the match to extra time. While the Reign ultimately ran out of gas and lost to the powerhouse Courage squad, the team showed how resilient they could be.
572 days later, and both squads look a little different. Reign FC is now OL Reign, has a new head coach, and welcomed a number of new players. The Reign goalkeeper for that semifinal match, Casey Murphy, is now suiting up for the Courage. That’s not the only change for North Carolina. The squad lost both Abby Dahlkemper and Sam Mewis to Manchester City, Crystal Dunn went to Portland this year, and their longtime left back Jaelene Daniels retired. They also picked up former Reign players Carson Pickett and Havana Solaun.
Both teams, however, still have a number of core squad players. For OL Reign, that’s players like Jess Fishlock, Lu Barnes, and Megan Rapinoe. For the Courage, that’s Lynn Williams, Jess McDonald, Abby Erceg, and Debinha — just to name a few.
After years of NWSL domination, will the Courage continue to wreck the hopes and dreams of NWSL teams? Here are a few things OL Reign will need to watch out for when going up against the Courage on Saturday, May 15.
There’s potential for lots of goals
Here’s what the 2021 NWSL Challenge Cup demonstrated. While the sample size was just four matches for both squads, it was clear that the Courage still have the firepower to score plenty of goals. Midfielder Debinha won the Challenge Cup MVP for her ability to create from the midfield and also get quickly into the box to score.
Meanwhile, McDonald looks like she got even smarter in the offseason and shows no signs of slowing down. While Williams can sometimes struggle to put shots on frame, she’s someone that can create a play out of nothing with her smart movement and speed.
The Courage scored 9 goals in their four Challenge Cup matches. Yikes. On the flip side, what used to be a stingy defense also gave up 8 goals — averaging two goals against per match. They were particularly vulnerable on through balls and cutbacks into the box. Just look at how Midge Purce was able to dribble from half and score in the first of four goals Gotham FC tallied against North Carolina.
Most goals in a single Challenge Cup match?— National Women's Soccer League (@NWSL) April 21, 2021
Let's run them all back ⤵️ pic.twitter.com/IULWzQdd3T
The Courage did start a fairly young centerback pairing throughout the tournament, with Erceg — one of the league's best defenders these last few years — out with an injury. Erceg looks to be ready to go for this regular-season opener, which will bring more organization to the backline. Still, OL Reign needs to be flooding the box in the attack. There are vulnerabilities that Reign forwards should be able to exploit.
Quick transition in the midfield
As for the dynamic Courage attack, much of it comes because of the midfield. Like Portland, North Carolina focuses on quickly closing down opponents and making a fast vertical transition when they get the ball. We probably all remember how much the Reign struggled against Portland in the Challenge Cup less than a month ago. The home squad will need to be a lot more buttoned-up this time around.
“We are really working on those quick counter attacks. They have some speed, and they can play those one-two touches that get the ball through our midfield and can get behind our defense,” said OL Reign defender Celia Jimenez Delgado in a pre-match press conference. “Being aware of the quick movements and those quick balls behind the defense, staying compact and very close to each other, and making sure that we can cover and help each other will be a good defense against North Carolina.”
Lots of crosses
During the Challenge Cup, North Carolina averaged 15.3 crosses per 90 minutes, second behind only Chicago. They also led the league in corner kicks per match, with 7.25. This isn’t a club that sends in looping crosses, however. In fact, they averaged the second-fewest high passes (above the shoulder) in the league during the Challenge Cup. North Carolina’s crosses are often low and placed, which can cause some disruption for their opponents.
OL Reign is a team that defends fairly well against crosses, but the squad will have to make sure they win the second ball. If they manage to get a head or foot on the cross, they can’t let it fall to North Carolina without applying pressure. The Courage create a lot of shots and chances off of clearances or rebounds.
Players to Watch
- Debinha: Not only is she a great presser, the Brazilian midfielder can also dribble, shoot from distance, and has incredible speed to get into the box. She’s a threat wherever she’s on the field.
- Havana Solaun: After picking up an injury in the Challenge Cup, Solaun looks poised to take on a meaningful role with the Courage this year. The midfielder was drafted by the Reign before getting traded to the Spirit for the 2017 season and then spending time playing abroad. She struggled to find her footing, but the highly technical player with a big soccer IQ has formed a great relationship with Debinha, according to head coach Paul Riley. She probably won’t press in the same way Debinha does, but Solaun is a great distributor who — in the words of Riley — is ready to be a bonafide number 10.
- Abby Erceg: If she gets the nod, Erceg — along with goalkeeper Murphy — will be asked to win a lot of crosses into the box from players like Megan Rapinoe, who is off the injury report for OL Reign. She’s a smart and calm defender that is hard to beat. At 5’ 10”, Erceg is also a threat on corners and set pieces.
OUT: Shirley Cruz (right hip), Ella Dederick (right knee), Quinn (left Achilles), Ally Watt (ACL-SEI)
QUESTIONABLE: Sam Hiatt (head)
North Carolina Courage
OUT: Rylee Baisden (left hamstring), Meredith Speck (left knee)
QUESTIONABLE: Abby Erceg (low back), Lynn Williams (left hamstring)
How to Watch
OL Reign kicks off against the North Carolina Courage at 7 PM on Saturday, May 15. The home match at Cheney Stadium will be open to fans, with single-match tickets available for those who are vaccinated. The game will stream exclusively on Twitch.