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OL Reign close preseason with draw against U.S. U-23 team

It wasn’t pretty, but that’s kind of the point of preseason.

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NWSL: Preseason-USWNT U23 at OL Reign Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

OL Reign closed their preseason tournament in Portland with a 1-1 draw against the U-23 USWNT squad. The U-23s came out strong from kickoff and had OL Reign on the back foot for most of the first half, finding the back of the net in the 38th minute. The Reign found a little more rhythm in the second half, and Jess Fishlock scored the equalizer in the 66th minute off an assist from Veronica Latsko.

While the tournament was not streamed, Ride of the Valkyries was in attendance for all three matches. Here’s a summary of how the final game played out.

Starting Formations

Laura Harvey again started a heavily rotated squad, with the same frontline that started against Chicago and Jimena Lopez getting her second start in a row. Laurel Ivory got her first start in goal, with Claudia Dickey subbing on at half.

OL Reign lineup: Laurel Ivory (Claudia Dickey); Jimena Lopez (Ryanne Browne), Lauren Barnes, Sam Hiatt, Sofia Huerta; Marley Canales (Nikki Stanton), Quinn (Angelina), Jess Fishlock; Tziarra King (Veronica Latsko), Bethany Balcer, Zsani Kajan (Ally Watt)

US U-23 lineup: Ruthie Jones; Brianna Martinez, Megan Bornkamp, Michela Agresti, Sydney Collins (Kirsten Pavlisko); Hannah Bebar, Croix Bethune, Jenna Nighswonger; Penelope Hocking, Messiah Bright (Ally Schlegel), Alexa Spaanstra

Match Summary

OL Reign came out in an all-black preseason look, and they seemed to let the Dark Side take over when it came to their play. From a Reign perspective, it was an ugly match that saw the U-23s pin them back for much of the first half before the Reign found a little rhythm in the second half. That was to be expected, however, as the team pushed themselves hard in preseason and had tired legs by the end of the tournament, which included three games in six days, plus training in between.

“At this stage of preseason, it’s always about evaluation of where you're at — and that’s really difficult to do unless you play other teams when you all don’t know what each other’s gonna do,” OL Reign head coach Laura Harvey said after the match. “I think we haven’t had a day off recovery day for like nine or 10 days, and I think you could see that tonight. But we wanted it that way. We wanted it to be where we had to grind ourselves through sort of the last couple of days. And we’ve had to do that.”

Coaches often remind you that when you’re tired, it’s not always the physical part of your play that shuts off first, but rather the mental side of the game. And the Reign showed that a few times in the first half. In the 7th minute, Quinn received a ball in the middle of the field and had winger Alexa Spaanstra running at them from behind. Quinn saw the pressure and tried to spin to the right around Spaanstra. The forward read Quinn’s movement well, however, and in uncharacteristic fashion, the Reign midfielder turned right into Spaanstra and gave the ball away in the center of the pitch. Spaanstra dribbled into the box, but Sam Hiatt — who had a number of key stops all evening — came up big with a sliding block.

The U-23 pressure would continue, and in the 38th minute their hard work paid off. While Jimena Lopez was high up the field, OL Reign lost the ball. The U-23s found Spaanstra on the right with lots of space. She dribbled toward the endline along the wing, causing Barnes to shift wide in an attempt to block the cross. Just as Barnes did that, Spaanstra sent the ball on the ground toward the center that found Croix Bethune. The attacking midfielder had enough time to collect the ball and line up her shot right in front of Ivory. There was nothing the rookie goalkeeper could do.

OL Reign closed the half with some nice combination play between Bethany Balcer and Tziarra King. Balcer collected a ball outside the box on the right corner and found King in front of her. King gave it right back to Balcer as she cut inside, and the forward took a touch and swung a shot in with her left foot. It was a good effort but wasn’t far enough to the corner and was saved. The half ended with 8 shots for the U-23s and 6 for the Reign.

The game was back-and-forth for much of the second half, with the Reign getting some better looks but still letting the U-23s push the play as well. It was the substitute Veronica Latsko who would help get the team even in the 66th minute. The Reign forward, who was playing on the right wing, pressured a U-23 defender near the endline. She managed to win the ball off the defender and find Jess Fishlock behind her in the box. Fishlock sent the ball low and hard toward goal and nutmegged the U-23 goalkeeper to draw even.

Hiatt came up big again for the Reign late in the match. The U-23s chipped a ball over the top and it fell to Ally Schlegel with no OL Reign defenders around her — it looked as if they all thought it was offside, though it wasn’t called. Dickey dove onto the ball right as Schlegel slid to poke it into the goal. The U-23 forward got enough on it to knock it out of Dickey’s hands, and she tried again to poke it into goal with Dickey still on the ground. That’s when Hiatt came sliding in, blocking the second shot and allowing the Reign to get reset.

The game ended in a 1-1 draw, with the Reign getting 18 shots and the U-23s 19.

Post-Match Reactions

Balcer, Latsko, and Laura Harvey joined a post-match press conference, where they reflected on the preseason tournament, the Challenge Cup home opener next week, and how the team is integrating ahead of the full 2022 season.

Harvey reflecting on the weeklong preseason tournament:

I think it was exactly what we wanted it to be. We didn’t prepare for the games the way we would normally prepare for games — as in, be fresh for every game, and I think you really saw that tonight. But the competition level’s high, and you get to find out a lot about yourselves in really good moments. And, you know, I think the Portland game is not preseason. It doesn’t ever feel that way when we play each other, but then I really do feel like the Chicago game and tonight’s game was a truer reflection of where we are for preseason, which is great. We found out a lot about ourselves, some great, some not so great. So we can go away and look at that and review and analyze and evaluate and come back ready to go for the start of the Challenge Cup.

On the status of Megan Rapinoe, Rose Lavelle, and Alyssa Malonson, who didn’t feature in the tournament:

Pinoe and Rose are both training. They’re both close to being back with the team. And whether that’ll be in time for next week, we’ll have to wait and see. And Alyssa is going to do some football-specific work next week for the first time since her injury. So progressing well, which is great.

Balcer reflecting on the weeklong preseason tournament:

I think we learned a lot about ourselves as a group. We were able to get lots of bodies on the field and tried to start building connections that we want to have throughout the year. This whole week was kind of just a learning process for us — figuring out our identity and who we want to be. And so each game was an opportunity to prove to Laura why each one of us as individuals should be on the field. So it was very competitive and just kind of about getting ready for what next week holds. It was very physically taxing and mentally taxing, which is obviously a good challenge for us to handle.

Balcer on playing Portland in preseason and again in the Challenge Cup home opener:

Yeah, playing against Portland. We hate them. I mean, we play them so much — in preseason, so much in the Challenge Cup, so much in the regular season. And so it’s literally just a game about mental grit and who wants it more and who’s gonna be more physical. And so it’s just a whole different type of game in and of itself. So I think we’re just looking to smash them.

Balcer on playing at Lumen Field this year:

Lumen Field has been something that we’ve all looked forward to. I know when it was announced, we were screaming tears of joy ... ‘cause I really do think the environment plays into it. We love our fans, whether they’re in Tacoma or Seattle, and the atmosphere just really helps us. And the more fans we can get the better. And I think just knowing that we have that going into the season is really beneficial, knowing that we’ll have that extra boost. And then just knowing that we’re going be playing on a better field in general, I think, is nice. It’s been good that we’re making steps towards becoming a professional club in the ways that we want to be.

Latsko on integrating with a new club:

It’s been a pretty seamless transition. Everyone’s so welcoming and nice and just so willing to make sure that you’re on the same page on and off the field. I think that the culture that the Reign has cultivated is a special one and I’m really grateful to be a part of it.

Latsko on playing on the wing this preseason:

Playing the wing on this team is a lot of fun because you get to high press and that’s so much fun for me. I love to run, so being able to run higher up on the field and pressuring the centerbacks and outside backs is something that I really like to do. The amount of combination play that the Reign plays is really great and fun.

Additional Observations

  • Sam Hiatt proved that it is going to be hard to leave her out of a starting lineup, as she came up big with a number of blocks and tackles on the defensive end. While she’s not as speedy as every forward she has to face, she positions herself well and has so many pure defensive skills that make her tough to beat.
  • Latsko looks like she might end up being a big pickup for the Reign this year. Harvey alluded to the same thing after the match. The forward is relentless in the pressure she applies high up the field and never stops running. Harvey was quick to praise Latsko for how “honest” she is in the amount of work she puts in, but the Reign head coach is interested in helping Latsko channel that energy into strategic runs at the right time. “I think she’s gonna be one that we’re going to look back on and believe that that was a really important move that we made to bring her to our team.”
  • While the team really struggled due to the grind they put their bodies through last week, you could hear the leadership of Lauren Barnes and Jess Fishlock on the field. At one point in the first half, Barnes urged the team to play faster. In another moment, Fishlock was pushing the team to press with her. The squad is lucky to have two veterans who are still showing up on the field in their play and their leadership.

It’s always hard to judge preseason, as the point of it isn’t to win games. It’s primarily to build fitness and give the squad a chance to integrate with one another — and the Reign welcomed plenty of new players this year. So while they drew with the U-23s and struggled at times against Chicago, that should be forgotten news after today. What fans can be certain of is that the players are eager to show their stuff at their new home, Lumen Field. And there will be plenty of heat in their Challenge Cup home opener.

That home opener kicks off Friday, March 18, at 7 PM PT, where OL Reign will be taking on their longtime rivals, the Portland Thorns. The match will stream on Paramount+, and tickets are still available on Ticketmaster. The OL Reign Supporters Group Royal Guard also has a great deal going; join them in the Supporters Section (122) for just $15 a match (plus fees).

Over the next week, Ride of the Valkyries will be answering your Lumen Field questions, previewing the Portland Thorns, and providing a look at the OL Reign depth chart. Stay tuned.

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