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Match Preview: OL Reign at Portland Thorns

Just two weeks after their battle in Seattle, the Reign face Portland on the road.

Nikita Taparia/ Sounder At Heart

It might feel like a moment of déjà vu, just three weeks into the Challenge Cup and the start of OL Reign’s 2022 season. After facing the Portland Thorns in a preseason tournament, and hosting them two weeks ago at Lumen Field, OL Reign again travel to Portland to take on the Thorns at Providence Park in their third Challenge Cup match.

The game kicks off Saturday, April 2, at 7 PM PT and will air on Paramount+. International viewers can catch the action on Twitch.

Portland is coming off a midweek 3-0 win over Angel City, putting the club at the top of the West group for the moment. The Reign were one of two teams that didn’t have a match on Wednesday — giving them a little extra rest, but less momentum than the Thorns.

Scouting Portland

Not much has changed for Portland since we previewed the squad two weeks ago, although their midfield has had more time to gel and Rocky Rodriguez returned from injury. They still line up in a 3-5-2 formation that heavily uses their wingbacks in possession — often bypassing the middle of the field to advance the ball. They cede possession to their opponents and look for opportunities to counter and strike quickly when they win the ball. And their deep-lying players are often the ones sending balls into the final third, which is beneficial when they have Sophia Smith — arguably the most dangerous forward in the league at the moment — starting up top.

Against Angel City on Wednesday, Portland’s wing players had quite an impact. They led the team in touches and were able to play higher up the field. Natalie Beckman, who get her first start for Portland on the left wing, led the team with four chances created. Meanwhile, right wingback Natalia Kuikka’s average position was in Portland’s attacking half, while against the Reign her average position was further back in her defensive half.

Some of that had to do with Portland’s strategy at Lumen Field. In that match, Portland tried to pin Sofia Huerta and Alana Cook back on the Reign’s right side of the field. This allowed a lot of play on the Reign’s left wing, which meant Kuikka was doing more defending on that side. Lauren Barnes and Sam Hiatt also led the team in passes. It worked out okay for the Reign, as building on the left wing is how the Reign found their lone goal. But the Reign will certainly be working to get Huerta the ball higher up the pitch this time.

According to the league, OL Reign lead the league in the percentage of shots on target, pass completion, goals per shots ratio, and big chance conversion. Portland, meanwhile, is second in the league in goals scored, sits second in big chance creation and is just behind the Reign in the goals-to-shots category. These are two offensive teams who are also defensively organized. Just like the home opener, it could come down to the team that fights harder and can finish their chances.

What to Watch

The wing battle

With Portland’s 3-5-2 formation, depending on the state of the game, OL Reign could be pinning the wingbacks back or dealing with extra numbers in their defensive half. Just as they did in the first half of their home opener against the Thorns, the Reign can dictate play if they set the tone and press early. That will push Portland’s wing players deeper, which is hopefully where the Reign can pin them all half.

Stop Sophia Smith

Aside from two chances, OL Reign did well to limit Sophia Smith in the Challenge Cup opener. The forward is dangerous because she can do so many things well. She uses her speed to get behind defenses, and she uses her first touch and dribble to separate from defenders. Just watch this goal she scored against Angel City, where she bodied a centerback off the ball and then cut around the second centerback with a feint and cut to her right. Smith has been a menace to opposing teams, but she’s also been powering the Thorns attack for much of the Challenge Cup.

Finish the game

OL Reign have dominated for long stretches of their first two matches, but in both games they’ve taken their foot off the pedal. It was something that frustrated head coach Laura Harvey last weekend, when the Reign were on the back foot in much of the second half despite playing up a player due to an Angel City red card. Especially on the road, and especially against their rivals, OL Reign are going to have to show up and fight for all 90 minutes. And if they want to be disruptive in both halves, the Reign will have to dominate the midfield like they did in the first half against Portland two weeks ago.

Availability Report

OL Reign

OUT: Lauren Barnes (suspension – card accumulation), Alyssa Malonson (knee), Megan Rapinoe (calf)

Portland Thorns

OUT: Crystal Dunn (maternity leave), Yazmeen Ryan (excused absence), Becky Sauerbrunn (right knee)

QUESTIONABLE: Meghan Klingenberg (left hip)

How to Watch

OL Reign’s road match in Portland kicks off Saturday, April 2, at 7 PM PT. It will stream on Paramount+ for fans in the U.S. and Twitch for international viewers.