After eight OL Reign players represented their countries during the international break, the club returns to NWSL play. OL Reign will face the North Carolina Courage in Cary, North Carolina, on Saturday, June 19. The game will air on CBS and kicks off at 1 PM PT.
Yes, you read that right: the big CBS. Tell all your friends.
International viewers will still be able to catch the match on Twitch.
It’s the second meeting between the two teams. They played to a 0-0 draw in the opening regular-season match of the year, with the Reign creating some strong chances against a tough Courage side.
Both OL Reign (1-2-1) and North Carolina (1-2-1) lost 1-0 in their last NWSL match, with the Courage falling to the Chicago Red Stars and registering just one shot on goal — their lowest total ever. The Courage have been dominant at home, however, so Reign fans shouldn’t expect a similar performance this weekend.
Here are three things we’ll be watching this match.
Establishing the OL Reign style
North Carolina is a difficult team to defend against, and it would be tempting to adapt to prevent the Courage from playing their game. But with additional world-class players arriving with the Reign, this game presents a good opportunity for the Tacoma club to show the league how dangerous they can be when playing their style.
“We have a style now. We can keep the ball and be very good with the ball. We created many opportunities and have to follow our way. We want to play and not always be a team who adapts. We want to keep our style,” said OL Reign head coach Farid Benstiti in a pregame press conference.
That style — as Benstiti notes — is a team that likes to possess the ball, stay patient defensively when they don’t have the ball, and quickly transition when they win the ball in their opponent's half.
“When we don’t have the ball, we have to keep our defensive structure and not to be rushed to try to recover with the ball. And we have to be more compact — not necessarily that we ask to block teams, to be low, but continue to step, defend forward, and clearly be very, very well organized. That’s the target,” said Benstiti. “And when we recover the ball higher, we have to go forward a little faster and be more determined to finish. And when we lose the ball in the final third, we have to be aggressive and stay in the final third.”
And hopefully, for this first time this year, that style of play will get the Reign an early goal so they’re not chasing the game. The Reign have yet to score first in a match this year.
With Dzsenifer Marozsan available for the match, the Reign have a real chance to not only hold onto the ball, but to be goal-dangerous and create chances in the midfield. Unfortunately, the Reign will be without Rose Lavelle, who picked up an ankle injury on international duty and will be out for the match, and Eugenie Le Sommer only arrived in Tacoma a few days ago and is unlikely to get playing time this weekend. But this is a team that should still be able to create plenty of chances.
Defend the crosses
North Carolina averages 24.5 crosses per game, and they’ve won 50.5% of their aerial duels compared to just 43.4% for OL Reign.
A lot of those crosses come from outside backs Carson Pickett and Merritt Mathias, who both spent time with the Reign earlier in their careers. Pickett has had a breakout season with the Courage this year —getting named to the May Team of the Month — and has one of the best left-footed crosses in the game. She’s often crossing from higher up the field, while Mathias sometimes opts for a deeper cross — and she’s quite dangerous from that spot on the field. Even if their crosses don’t connect, the Courage win a lot of second balls in the box.
Forwards Lynn Williams and Jess McDonald are both some of the best in the air in the league, and they have the speed to sneak behind defenders. OL Reign’s backline is going to have to be organized and strong in the box. And on a big field like WakeMed Soccer Park, the backline can’t drop too deep, which would give North Carolina more room to move around in the midfield.
Matching North Carolina’s box midfield
Speaking of that midfield, North Carolina plays with a box midfield shape, which means they have four players in the midfield that play fairly narrow and use their outside backs for width. With so many players who can run for days, this shape works really well for the Courage.
It didn’t work so well against Chicago, however. As reporter Jason Anderson notes, Chicago would push their left back, Arin Wright, up higher when North Carolina’s backline had the ball. That prevented them from allowing their outside back to move the ball up the field. On the other side of the field, the wing player on the front line, Rachel Hill, dropped back. Mallory Pugh, who played in front of Wright, pulled inside — clogging up the midfield even more.
How's that work? Wright pushes up the left, Hill drops deep on the right to take up space Pickett loves to play in, and Pugh drifts in from the left. They match the NC midfield box, but add extra numbers by being compact. pic.twitter.com/dV2oiodqpH— Jason Anderson (@JasonDCsoccer) June 5, 2021
The Courage had a really hard time breaking the Red Stars down — especially in the first half. They played more direct in the second half and created more chances, getting eight shots off, but it wasn’t nearly enough.
OL Reign may not defend in the exact same way, but they will want to do as much as they can to limit the runs of Pickett and Mathias and match the numbers in North Carolina’s midfield. Whoever starts on the right wing will be asked to do a lot of defending — but if they can come out with the same energy they did against Portland, this Reign side can make things hard for the Courage.
As forward Leah Pruitt said ahead of the match about the defending the front line does, “We know that our transition needs to be faster because we help defend. So we need to just be able to turn over quick and find the balls up high, and I think just finding that wide space and then making the good runs in the box.”
Pruitt said it’s something the team worked a lot on this week. “The big field will probably be good for us because we’re going to have a lot of space in behind to be able to make runs and get into the box for our teammates, so I think it’s going to be good and we’re going to be very offensive this weekend.”
Injury Report / Absences
OUT: Ally Watt (right knee), Karen Bardsley (left thigh – SEI), Rose Lavelle (left ankle), Kelcie Hedge (right foot), Rosie White (illness)
INTERNATIONAL DUTY: Nicole Momiki
North Carolina Courage
OUT: Lindsay Agnew (right foot), Hailey Harbison (left knee)
How to Watch
The match kicks off Saturday, June 19, at 1 PM PT and will air on CBS and stream on CBS. International viewers can watch on Twitch.