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Can OL Reign’s press produce more goals in 2023?

The Reign had the most effective press in the league last year, but struggled at times to finish their chances.

MikeRussellFoto / Sounder at Heart

While OL Reign stood at the top of the league at the conclusion of the 2022 season, earning their third NWSL Shield, the team was fifth in the 12-team league in one important stat: goals scored. OL Reign scored 17 fewer goals than the Portland Thorns and were 14 goals behind the NC Courage.

Of course, this one stat alone doesn’t tell the whole story of the Reign’s attack. The Reign offense was, in fact, pretty great in 2022 — aside from their goal-conversion rate. According to American Soccer Analysis, OL Reign was second in regular-season expected goals (xG) behind Portland (41.62 v. 37.15). That xG number is pretty incredible when you compare it to the 32 goals the team scored. OL Reign scored 5.15 fewer goals than expected based on the chances they created all season.

The Reign were also second in shot-creating actions, which FBref categorizes as the two offensive actions directly leading to shots such as dribbles, passes, defensive action, and drawing fouls.

One big reason for these strong attacking numbers was OL Reign’s press, which varied from a high press to a mid-block depending on how the opponent played. Head coach Laura Harvey asks a lot of her entire team on the defensive end, including from the front line. They need to be ready to close down at the right time to force turnovers, or they need to understand how to force their opponent into a trap. This is an underrated part of Megan Rapinoe’s game, but others on the team have been learning from the U.S. national team forward.

Several different stats demonstrate just how effective OL Reign’s press was throughout the season. To start, the Reign led the league in “high turnovers,” which is calculated by Opta as turnovers created within 40 meters of the opposition goal — OL Reign had 318 of those. They also created a league-leading 59 shots from those turnovers, which resulted in five goals (16% of their regular-season total).

Courtesy: Opta

Even when OL Reign was struggling to convert their chances, their press was creating plenty of goal-scoring opportunities.

Here’s another visual that shows how OL Reign’s press dominated the league, courtesy of Tony Maza (@xGisfornerds on Twitter). On the x-axis is the number of high turnovers each NWSL club won. The y-axis shows how many resulted in shots. The chart makes one thing abundantly clear: OL Reign was well above the rest of the league in both categories.

Harvey was consistent in stating that she wanted to make her team unpredictable in 2022, and that was also true in the way they pressed. In their two matches against San Diego, a team that liked to create from the middle of the field and sneak behind high backlines, OL Reign won possession 78 times in the middle third — compared to just 12 times in their attacking third. The Reign backline sat a little deeper and their forwards dropped to compress the space in the midfield.

Against the Washington Spirit, a team that liked to build out of the back, the Reign won possession in their attacking third a team-high 26 times across two matches. Their high line pushed the Spirit back — forcing them to play a number of passes between their centerbacks without advancing the ball forward — and OL Reign’s outside backs had much higher positions up the field to pressure Washington's wing players.

In addition to leading the league in high turnovers, OL Reign led the league in possession won in the midfield (821, compared to 739 for second-best Kansas City, according to FotMob). OL Reign also won the most tackles in the middle third (221, compared to second-best San Diego’s 198, according to FBref).

OL Reign’s third goal in a come-from-behind win against Angel City is a great example of how effectively the team could transition after winning the ball a little deeper. In this instance (starts at 9:34 in the below video), centerback Alana Cook — playing alongside a high back line — intercepts a pass in the Reign’s attacking half and sparks a quick attack on the right side of the field. Right back Sofia Huerta is able to get into the attacking third quickly and whips in a cross, which Tobin Heath finishes with style.

Harvey relied a lot on her wing players to be able to read the game and close down on opponents or force them into traps. Some players over the years have struggled with the level of defensive discipline and intensity that Harvey wants from her wing players. This is part of the reason for early rotation on the front line in 2022, with Harvey trying to find the right combination of players to complement the team’s attack and defense. That assignment ultimately fell to Bethany Balcer and Rapinoe, who both led the forward line in attacking-third recoveries.

But there was another player who was vitally important to the Reign press: Rose Lavelle.

While Lavelle is poised to be the creative engine for OL Reign and the U.S. Women’s National Team this year, her performance on the defensive end has gone under the radar at times — especially for the Reign. When they press, Lavelle often steps up to the front line, providing a fourth body to press an opposing centerback or holding midfielder, or cut off passes into the midfield.

Lavelle is like a cat waiting to pounce as you round the corner in your house: you don’t want to be an unsuspecting victim, but you can hardly avoid it.

The midfielder led the team last year in final-third recoveries, with 60. The Welsh Dragon, Jess Fishlock, was second with 47. As the below graph shows — again from @xGisfornerds — Lavelle was second in the league in possession won in the final third per 90. That can be done by pressing, tackling, winning a loose ball, intercepting, etc. Lavelle was strong in every category, and she was first in this stat among consistent starters in the league.

Some of Lavelle’s defensive numbers are world-class for an attacking mid. According to FBref, compared to attacking midfielders/wingers in top leagues around the world, Lavelle is in the 98th percentile in ball recoveries per 90 (7.95) and tackles won per 90 (1.93). She’s also in the 89th percentile for interceptions per match (1.33), and the 93rd percentile in defensive actions that lead to a shot.

In short, Rose Lavelle is a menace.

In addition to reading pressing triggers well, Lavelle’s quick feet are useful in defensive duels. A tackle by the midfielder led to OL Reign’s opening goal back in May against Racing Louisville, sparking a comeback draw in the team’s third match that week.

Of course, as it is with everything OL Reign does, pressing is a full-team effort. Lavelle deserves significantly more praise than she’s received for how effective she was out of possession in 2022, but the Reign couldn’t have put up the offensive and defensive numbers they did without every player doing their part.

Here’s one final stat from last season to demonstrate the team’s effectiveness. OL Reign was second in the league in PPDA, which stands for Passes Per Defensive Action. PPDA captures the number of passes a team allows in attacking areas before they make a defensive action. The lower the PPDA, the higher the intensity of a team’s press. OL Reign’s PPDA was 10 in 2022, while San Diego led the league at 9.4. What you have to remember about PPDA is that it only captures a defensive action; it doesn’t examine what came next. So while OL Reign was behind the Wave in the intensity of their press, they transitioned better when they won the ball — resulting in the league-leading 59 shots from high turnovers.

OL Reign’s high press was dominant in their 4-1 win over NJ/NY Gotham FC last August — leading to numerous chances, including a penalty that Rapinoe buried. In that game, the Reign had 43 touches in Gotham’s box, 15 shots from inside the 18-yard box, and won possession 70 times.

“Gotham are a team that do try and play. I think a lot of teams against us often don’t let us high press them, because we’re pretty good at it. And so I think when we could get an opportunity to let them play, we wanted them to play so we could go and trigger it and get after them a little bit. I think it gives us momentum when we can do that,” Harvey said after that match.

“It’s something that we believe in. It’s something that forwards don’t necessarily truly want to do, so if we can give them a reward for doing that, we feel that we will continue to get that out of them.”

OL Reign is returning all of the team’s core starters for 2023, in addition to adding talented players like Elyse Bennett and Emily Sonnett. That means the squad will already understand Harvey’s pressing principles, which should terrify the other teams in the league. The big question remains: can OL Reign turn those turnovers into more goals this year? Fans will have to wait until the season kicks off in late March for that answer, but the possibilities should excite everyone who supports the team.

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