It’s here. The NWSL regular season has returned. After the 2020 regular season was wiped away by the pandemic — and following the creation of the Challenge Cup and Fall Series, and the return of the Challenge Cup this year to act as a warm-up — the NWSL regular season finally returned this weekend. OL Reign kicked off their 2021 campaign by hosting the North Carolina Courage, who they last faced all the way back in the semifinals of the 2019 NWSL playoffs. Each team has had a lot of changes to their roster since then, but the core impact players for each team are still there and tried to have their say in the match. However, OL Reign and North Carolina played to a scoreless draw to open up the season.
WHAT WORKED: HOLDING NORTH CAROLINA SCORELESS
Anyone that’s been following this league knows that keeping the Courage off the scoresheet is very much easier said than done. North Carolina has a track record of scoring in bunches, as Reign fans know all-too-well from that semifinal game two years ago. Yet OL Reign’s backline and goalkeeper Karen Bardsley responded well to every threat North Carolina mounted. Even with an early exit from Celia in the 24th minute due to a suspected hamstring injury, OL Reign were able to limit the influence impact that Debinha and Jess McDonald are notorious for. While North Carolina had some uncharacteristic miscommunication, OL Reign’s defense sure made it tougher for them tonight.
WHAT WORKED: MADISON HAMMOND’S ADAPTABILITY
The Celia injury forced Hammond to move to right back for the rest of the evening, while Amber Brooks came on to replace Celia and pick up the duties at center back along with Kristen McNabb. Hammond was solid with the change. There were moments in the second half where it looked like fatigue was getting to her on the offensive side when she was tasked with sending in a cross, but it did not jeopardize her defensive duties. Tonight was another piece of evidence as to why she played every minute of the Challenge Cup, and she rewarded the investment in trust the team has in her this early into her career.
“She was able to slide in from center back to right back; you know she’s paying attention in practice and learning the structure of the game, and what it calls for. So having to go out there and play that role today just goes to show her growth — it’s been huge with the last year and a half. She’s going to be a really fun one to watch,” said Lauren Barnes in her post-match press conference about Hammond’s performance tonight, needing to adjust on the fly in response to Celia’s early exit.
WHAT WORKED: LAUREN BARNES APPRECIATION SECTION
Speaking of solid effort from the entire defense tonight, before the game kicked off, Barnes was honored for reaching the milestone of 150 NWSL appearances; she’s the second player in the league to reach this milestone after Christine Nairn, and the only one to have played all 150 games with the same club. Ever the team player, the Reign Original was quick to move the spotlight on her achievement over to the team’s performance tonight. She did, however, add in this moment of reflection about the journey of her NWSL career to date and the growth of the league and why it remains fun for her, why she keeps playing. “I was in the WPS before this and every day was like, ‘Is it going to be here or not?’”
Congratulations on the milestone, Lauren!
WHAT DIDN’T WORK: FINISHING
Holding North Carolina scoreless is a very good day. Had OL Reign been able to convert on some prime opportunities, they would have wrapped up the evening in a comfortable fashion. A heater from Megan Rapinoe probably dented the post. Jess Fishlock had two moments that could have been Goal of the Week candidates, but instead they were misfires. It might be frustrating they weren’t able to convert on those and other chances throughout the night, but we know the NWSL regular season is a marathon. Much like shaking off the rust and working on playing as a full team was the case in the Challenge Cup, working on building and finishing attacks will take time for this team. And adding some more first-class attacking reinforcements next month won’t hurt, either.
“I’M NOT GOING TO GO HOME & LOSE SLEEP OVER THAT”
If you thought the missed chances were something Jess Fishlock was going to lament over, nope. In her post-match press conference, Fishlock praised the team for creating chances tonight against North Carolina.
“The most important thing is that we are progressing in our performances. We’ve said that from the beginning of the Challenge Cup and I believe where our standards are right now with regards to how we defend, how we work, how we talk to each other,” she remarked. “If we keep creating those amount of chances, as the games go on, we’re going to score two, three goals every time. This is our level now, we do not drop this. All we do is get better and better.”
“I WANTED TO WIN TODAY”
It’s surreal to think that after Farid Benstiti was announced as the new Reign head coach, he’d have to wait nearly 16 months before coaching in his first NWSL regular season match. He said in his post-match press conference that he thought about his previous head coaching debuts and how he hadn’t lost in any of them. While he expressed understandable frustration that the team wasn’t able to find the back of the net with several prime opportunities, he was still positive about how they were creating chances and thought in due time the efficiency in that final third will come for the team.
So it’s a split of the points for OL Reign and North Carolina Courage to open up the season. Next up for OL Reign is traveling down that familiar I-5 to Portland to meet their Cascadia rivals, Portland Thorns. The match is scheduled for Sunday, May 23 with a 3 PM PT kickoff and the game will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network.