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Match Preview: OL Reign v. San Diego Wave

It’s the first-ever Cooler Clásico.

Photos by Jane Gershovich/ISI Photos/Getty Images and Visionhaus/Getty Images

After a brief international break, the NWSL Challenge Cup is back in action on Thursday. Under the lights of Lumen Field, OL Reign will host expansion club San Diego Wave FC at 7 PM PT. The match will stream on Paramount+ for fans in the U.S. and on Twitch for international viewers.

It will be an interesting challenge for OL Reign, who had seven players represent their countries during the international break, with some matches around the globe concluding just two days prior to kickoff. With another match on Sunday, expect head coach Laura Harvey to rotate some of her starters — especially those who played significant minutes with their national teams in the last week.

The Wave are coached by Casey Stoney, a former England national team defender who was head coach at Manchester United before making her way to California. Like OL Reign head coach Laura Harvey, Stoney is well-known for her moments deep in thought while sitting on top of a cooler during matches. Because of that, some fans are looking to brand this match a Clash of the Coolers, or the Cooler Clásico.

OL Reign enter the match with a 2-0-1 (W-L-D) record in the Challenge Cup, while San Diego is 1-1-1. Both sides have scored five goals in three matches, while the Wave have given up four goals compared to two for the Reign.

Scouting San Diego Wave

Formation

San Diego lines up in a 4-3-3 formation, similar to the Reign. In goal is one of the best goalkeepers in the league, Kailen Sheridan. The Canadian international is difficult to beat in the corners.

Tegan McGrady has been San Diego’s starting left back, with Naomi Girma and Abby Dahlkemper in the middle. Girma just got her first USWNT cap, while Dahlkemper has been a regular for some time. One-time Reign defender Christen Westphal has been the Wave’s starting right back in the Challenge Cup.

Former Reign midfielder/defender Kristen McNabb has been a stable force in the middle as the holding midfielder. She’s joined by box-to-box midfielder Taylor Kornieck, who played the last two years for Orlando and who, at 6’1”, is a threat when she gets into the box and can use her long legs to break up passes. Rookie Kelsey Turnbow has been the team’s starting attacking midfielder; she also played a lot of her Santa Clara college career as a forward.

Up top, there has been more rotation. Expect Alex Morgan to get the start, given she’s healthy, in form, and didn’t get called into the latest USWNT camp. Other options include two other former Reign players, Jodie Taylor and Katie Johnson, Sweden international Sofia Jakobsson, who was in Europe for World Cup qualifiers last week, and rookie Amirah Ali, who scored her first NWSL goal against Angel City last match.

Style of Play

San Diego plays a game similar to the Reign in some ways, while differing in others. The Wave pride themselves on their defensive organization. It’s been a Casey Stoney fundamental throughout her coaching career. Like the Reign, San Diego keeps possession with its backline and looks to build out of the back.

Unlike the Reign, however, the Wave can often play more vertical when they move the ball up the field. Around 41% of the Wave’s passes are forward, compared to 34% for the Reign (although two of the Reign’s matches have been against a Portland side that sat deep). That means the Wave often bypass their midfield. In fact, only one midfielder, Kornieck, was in the top five for completed passes in any of their first three matches — and that only happened in one game.

While their midfield might not get on the ball a lot, that doesn’t mean San Diego doesn’t attack often. In fact, San Diego has averaged 36 touches per game in their opponent’s box during the Challenge Cup. The Reign, on the other hand, are averaging just 13 touches in their attacking penalty box. When a team has that much activity in the box, it can cause chaos for defenses. And San Diego managed to get 37 shots off in their first three matches.

San Diego likes to cross as well, playing nearly 17 crosses a match to start the Challenge Cup (the Reign are averaging 14). And when San Diego have a target like Kornieck, they can be even more difficult to defend. The Reign will need to be composed in the box, especially on set pieces. Fortunately, this is something the team has done well in their opening Challenge Cup matches.

What to Watch

Control the tempo

A great way to break down a team like San Diego is to control the pace of the game. If this match gets stretched and becomes and back-and-forth affair, that may play into San Diego’s favor. It will be up to the Reign how much they push the pace at key moments, and when they slow down the game to make the Wave chase the ball and open up pockets.

“I think we have to play a tempo that’s hard to stick with,” Harvey said in a pre-match press conference. “I think we’re very similar teams in our philosophies of how we go about the game. You look at the two teams and they have very similar traits. We just have to be willing to be patient when we need to be, but also expose things that they don’t want us to expose.”

Limiting San Diego’s touches in the box

We touched on this already, but this will be a big test for the Reign’s defense. San Diego love to get into the box and are dangerous on crosses and set pieces. The best way to limit these chances? Prevent the ball into the box. If the Reign can close down quickly on the wings, they can limit a dangerous part of San Diego’s game.

“I think actually it’s something we’ve been very good at, limiting people inside the box,” Harvey said. “That’s the first and foremost. We need to keep continuing to do that.”

Three points at home

While the most important part of the Challenge Cup is for the Reign to find their identity and get some momentum, they still want to win. Especially in front of their home fans at Lumen Field. They have two great opportunities to do that this week — on Thursday and again on Sunday against Angel City.

Injury / Availability Report

OL Reign

OUT: Angelina (right ankle), Megan Rapinoe (right calf)

QUESTIONABLE: Quinn, Jess Fishlock, Alana Cook, Sofia Huerta, Rose Lavelle, Jimena Lopez (international duty)

San Diego Wave

OUT: Makenzy Doniak (left knee), Mia Gyau (right thigh)

QUESTIONABLE: Kailen Sheridan (return from INTL duty)

How to Watch

OL Reign’s home match against San Diego kicks off Thursday, April 14, at 7 PM PT. It will stream on Paramount+ for fans in the U.S. and Twitch for international viewers.