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A look at OL Reign’s depth ahead of the Challenge Cup

The Challenge Cup roster has 26 players. Who are the likely starters?

NWSL: Preseason-Chicago Red Stars at OL Reign Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

OL Reign today released the club’s 26-team roster for the Challenge Cup, which kicks off Friday, March 18, at Lumen Field when the Reign take on the Portland Thorns.

OL Reign currently has 23 players under contract for the 2022 season, with another three players selected in the NWSL College Draft who are currently not signed to a contract — defender Ryanne Brown and midfielders Marley Canales and Olivia Van der Jagt. OL Reign General Manager Nick Perera clarified that these three players are not eligible to appear on a Challenge Cup matchday roster, but will remain active participants in training and “are part of our long term planning for the club.”

The club is utilizing just two of their five international slots — one for Mexican international Jimena López and one for newly signed Hungarian international Zsani Kaján. While OL Reign head coach Laura Harvey has been clear that the team believes they have enough depth to push them into the playoffs, the three available international spots also give them flexibility if they feel they have to explore loan deals with OL or other additional signings.

As Harvey shared in a preseason press conference, the club is welcoming one of the largest groups of new players in Reign history. Twelve of the 26 players on the Challenge Cup roster joined the team this year. With a lot of new faces, and no preseason matches streamed, many fans are wondering which players are likely to start and where the rest of their teammates fall on the depth chart.

With a limited sample size heading into Challenge Cup, here are some of our best guesses.

Forwards

Likely starters: When healthy, it feels like Megan Rapinoe, Bethany Balcer, and Ally Watt are the likely starting trio on the frontline. But Tziarra King and Veronica Latsko have shown well in preseason and will be competing for those minutes early on as well.

Balcer — who finished 2021 with 9 goals and the best goals-per-90 ratio in the league — has proven herself to be one of the best No. 9s and should be competing for the Golden Boot again this year, especially with continued service from Sofia Huerta. The 25-year-old and 2019 Rookie of the Year was much more effective for the Reign in 2021 when she started versus coming off the bench — all 9 goals came from starts.

Watt may be the fastest player in the league when she’s accelerating, and she has a powerful shot. In her first full year back from an ACL tear, she’ll be hungry to prove herself and earn more minutes. Watt was selected 6th overall by North Carolina in the 2020 draft and gave fans a teaser of how dangerous she could be in her limited substitute appearances for the Reign at the end of the 2021 season.

Rapinoe had 6 goals and 3 assists last year in just over 800 minutes. Her bonafides need no further mention, but she is entering the Challenge Cup with a slight knock and is probably not going to be able to start every match. That means King or Latsko is likely to start in Rapinoe’s place at times during the tournament.

King earned just over 600 minutes last year — scoring 1 goal and notching 1 assist — and she showed in the preseason that she deserves to see plenty more time on the pitch in 2022. The 8th overall draft pick in 2020 is skilled on the ball, has good passing and vision, is a strong crosser, and can rip a shot from distance — which is how she scored her preseason goal against Chicago last week.

Latsko might be one of the hardest-working forwards in the league and she isn’t afraid to put constant pressure on backlines. She started on both the wing and in the No. 9 spot at Houston but played exclusively on the wing for OL Reign in the Portland preseason tournament. The 26-year-old’s work rate is going to create a lot of opportunities for her teammates — and she’s still dangerous in front of goal.

Additional options:

  • Zsanett (Zsani) Kaján, OL Reign’s first-round draft pick this year, was a scoring machine at St. John’s. She’ll likely need a little time to get a feel for the fast-paced NWSL, but the forward is dangerous in front of goal, is a solid passer, gets herself in good spots in the box, took set pieces during OL Reign’s preseason, and will be hungry to prove herself.
  • Olivia Athens, a rookie the Reign signed this year, lined up as an attacking midfielder during her time at UCLA where she scored about as often as she assisted. She played on the frontline in OL Reign’s preseason tournament, replacing Balcer in the No. 9 role in two matches — often playing more like a withdrawn 9 who dropped into the midfield to join the buildup.
  • Angelina, who you’ll see pop up in the midfield section, can also play on the wing. She’s arguably a better midfielder, where she can create and find space. But that creativity can be just as valuable on the wing when needed.

Midfield

Likely starters: OL Reign has four players who are likely starters in the midfield, which gives Harvey a fun challenge when the team is fully healthy. Quinn, Jess Fishlock, Rose Lavelle, and Angelina all deserve the chance to start in the midfield. Fortunately, plenty of rotation is needed in the NWSL — and especially during the Challenge Cup as players build match fitness to prepare their bodies for a full season.

Quinn is the team’s top choice in the holding midfield role, as they cover a lot of ground, are the link between the backline and attack, and smartly anticipate passes. Fishlock and Angelina can both play the box-to-box and attacking midfielder roles well. Reigning NWSL MVP Fishlock — who had 5 goals and 4 assists in 2021 — chooses her runs into the box at smart times, is an important part of the team’s press, and has produced some recent bangers from distance. Angelina, a skilled and creative passer who can also be a defensive menace, is poised for a breakout season in the league. USWNT regular Lavelle is incredibly dangerous on the dribble, and you want her in a free-roaming position where she can find the pockets of space to influence the match.

Additional options:

  • Nikki Stanton is a ball winner. Period. She’s the likely backup in the holding midfield role and is someone you want subbing in to close out matches. The 31-year-old, who grew up in North Bend, also showed in preseason that she’s good for a banger every once in a while.
  • Despite lining up on the frontline in preseason, Athens can drop into the midfield with ease, primarily in an attacking midfield role. She could do it all in that spot at UCLA — dribble, pass, and finish — and should be an important utility player for the Reign in her rookie year. Athens has a deft touch and knows when to dart into the box — that’s how she scored most of her goals at UCLA.
  • While they haven’t signed regular-season contracts yet, draft picks Olivia Van der Jagt — a UW graduate who grew up in Kent — and UCLA graduate Marley Canales showed well in preseason. Van der Jagt is the kind of midfielder who is just ridiculously hard to get around. She wins her challenges but may need just a bit more time to show that her passing game can hang in the NWSL. Canales is a versatile midfielder who is a great passer, an excellent set-piece taker (she had three Olimpico goals at UCLA), and has lots of fight in the midfield. She may need a little more time to adjust to the speed of the NWSL.

Defense

Likely starters: If I had to guess, I’d predict that OL Reign line up in their Challenge Cup opener with Lauren Barnes at left back, Sam Hiatt and Alana Cook at centerback, and Sofia Huerta at right back.

Huerta shined in her mid-season move to right back last year and finished the regular season leading the league in assists. With Huerta often getting more involved in the attack on the right, Barnes on the left side gives the backline some balance — allowing the team to shift into a three-back formation when Huerta presses high. The 32-year-old Barnes might be a better centerback, but her calmness under pressure makes her a good option on the outside. It’s nearly impossible to get around Cook — who is fast, a calm passer, and good in the air — and Hiatt is such a pure defender that positions herself well and is also calm under pressure. The two played together at Stanford and seem to balance each other well. Both are only 24, which means they have plenty of time to grow and improve.

Jimena López could sneak into a starting spot at left back, and she will likely get some looks there in the Challenge Cup. The Texas A&M graduate and All-American got some good match experience in the preseason and is used to syncing up with Watt, who also played with her at Texas A&M. At just 23, López spent the preseason getting more acclimated with how Harvey wants her to play — when to press higher, when to switch play, etc. There’s no better way to test her readiness for the NWSL than the Challenge Cup.

With this backline, the Reign could return to some of the roots of Harvey’s dominant Reign teams, which focused on building from the back.

Additional options:

  • Phoebe McClernon, who the Reign acquired in a trade with Orlando, is another possible starter at centerback. Selected 14th overall by Orlando in 2020, the young defender wins her duels and is a solid passer.
  • Sinclaire Miramontez, who spent time with North Carolina and Racing Louisville before signing with the Reign, can slot in at outside back or centerback. She played as a left back and right back during preseason, and that’s where the team needs a bit more depth. Miramontez doesn’t have the speed of someone like López, but she’s got good instincts when it comes to defensive positioning and withholding pressure.
  • Alyssa Malonson has been injured throughout the preseason, but the recent Auburn University graduate can also play both left back and centerback. Malonson was a Second Team All-American her senior year, but due to her preseason injury, where she falls in the depth order is still a question.
  • Wake Forest graduate Ryanne Brown, another OL Reign draft pick, has not yet signed a contract with the club. But she showed well in preseason — and with the departure of Madison Hammond, Brown could be a reliable backup at right back. Brown, who played in the attack and defense at Wake Forest, was a solid passer and strong crosser in college, which should translate well into the pros.

Goalkeeper

After being one of the three players nominated for Goalkeeper of the Year in 2021 for French Division 1 Féminine — when she was the starter at Stade de Reims — Phallon Tullis-Joyce is the initial number one goalkeeper for OL Reign. As she showed in her two preseason appearances — where she made big-time saves at the close of each match — the 25-year-old pro is ready to rise to the challenge for OL Reign.

Tullis-Joyce is a talented shot-stopper who will be asked to show her skills with the ball at her feet with the Reign as well.

Additional options:

  • Rookies Claudia Dickey and Laurel Ivory both got 45 minutes in OL Reign’s preseason tournament in Portland. It’s hard to say which goalkeeper is currently second in line, as both came out of college with lots of talent and upside. In fact, both players recently got called into a USWNT U-23 camp.

Lauren Barnes, who is now entering her 10th year with the club, said this was the most well-rounded and competitive preseason roster she’s been a part of. The Challenge Cup will be a great spot for the new players and draft picks to prove themselves. You’ll have a chance to tell us how wrong we were in these depth chart predictions starting this Friday, March 18, when OL Reign host the Portland Thorns at Lumen Field. That match kicks off at 7 PM PT and will stream on Paramount+. The Challenge Cup runs through May 8, with the regular season following shortly after.