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Match Preview: OL Reign at Washington Spirit

May 1 is the regular-season NWSL opener for OL Reign. They head on the road to take on the Washington Spirit.

Nikita Taparia/Sounder At Heart

OL Reign jumpstart a busy week on Sunday, May 1, when they fly across the country to take on the Washington Spirit in their NWSL regular-season opener. The match will be hosted at Audi Field in Washington, D.C., and will kick off at 2 PM PT. It will be streamed on Paramount+ for fans in the U.S. and Twitch for international viewers.

Just three days later, the Reign and Spirit face off yet again at Audi Field in the NWSL Challenge Cup semifinals. And the Reign have another match, this time at home, just a few days later in what will either be the club’s regular-season home opener or the Challenge Cup final, depending on their midweek result. That means Reign head coach Laura Harvey is going to need to rotate players throughout a very busy week.

After losing to the Spirit in heartbreaking fashion in the 2021 playoff semifinals, the Reign have a chance for a bit of redemption to start 2022. Here’s what you need to know about OL Reign’s first regular-season opponent.

Washington’s Formation & Style of Play

The Spirit are similar to OL Reign in many ways. They play in a 4-2-3-1 formation, and their attack is successful because they are organized defensively. Both teams have excellent shot-stoppers in goal. The Spirit also like to keep possession and use their backline and midfield — especially U.S. Women’s National Team midfielder Andi Sullivan — to move the ball around. They don’t rely heavily on crosses but can be dangerous out wide thanks to outside backs like Kelley O’Hara who can send a ball in.

Where OL Reign and the Spirit differ so far is in the attack. The front four for Washington are truly terrifying, and the Spirit under head coach Kris Ward look to press high and quickly move the ball forward. In the No. 9 spot is Ashley Hatch, the reigning Golden Boot winner, who also drops back to help build the attack. Hatch scored five goals already in the Challenge Cup. Trinity Rodman on the wing can do it all — press, create, and score. She scored four goals and assisted two in the Challenge Cup group stage.

After starting the year a little slow, attacking midfielder Ashley Sanchez created 17 chances in her last three matches. It will be important for the Reign to try to disrupt her as much as possible when she’s on the ball in the middle of the pitch.

According to American Soccer Analysis, the Spirit averaged 36.17 touches in the box per game during the Challenge Cup group stage, good for first in the league. OL Reign, by comparison, averaged just 19.33. Fortunately for the Reign, they’ve faced this before against San Diego and did well to prevent dangerous balls into the box. They’ll have to be even better on Sunday against the Spirit, who led the Challenge Cup with an average of 15 shots a game.

The Spirit also have the most regular starters returning of any NWSL club, which should frighten every team in the league considering they walked away with the NWSL Championship title last year and haven’t lost a game (other than two Covid-related forfeits) since early last August. As Arianna Cascone from American Soccer Analysis highlights, the Spirit’s returning players accounted for 80% of the team’s 2021 minutes.

The Spirit went 2-0-4 in the Challenge Cup group stage, scoring 12 goals while allowing 7. The Reign, on the other hand, were 4-0-2 and scored 11 while allowing 5.

What to Watch

Who presses better

Both the Reign and Spirit like to press high on the field and take advantage of quick transition moments. Washington has been rattled early in a few matches this Challenge Cup when they take on early pressure from opponents (North Carolina in particular had success doing this). OL Reign have the players to cause some early problems. Can they capitalize on them?

Smart with the ball

OL Reign have been one of the most organized defenses to start the year. When the team has gotten themselves in trouble, it has often been due to poor giveaways. The Spirit will punish any misstep, so the Reign are going to have to be smart with the ball.

Creativity in the attacking third

While the Reign scored 11 goals in their six Challenge Cup games, they had a fairly low Expected Goals (xG) tally of 5.79. If the Reign are going to push themselves to a championship this year, they need to be more clinical in the final third.

Injury / Availability Report

OL Reign

OUT: Zsanett Kajan (COVID protocol), Megan Rapinoe (right calf), Olivia Van der Jagt (COVID protocol)

Washington Spirit

OUT: Averie Collins (knee), Tori Huster (SEI - left lower leg), Alia Martin (ankle), Tara McKeown (calf), Gaby Vincent (calf)

QUESTIONABLE: Jordan Baggett (calf), Kelley O’Hara (hamstring), Andi Sullivan (calf)

How to Watch

OL Reign kick off against the Washington Spirit at 2 PM PT on Sunday. The road match at Audi Field will air on Paramount+ for fans in the U.S. and Twitch for international viewers.