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Five questions OL Reign need to answer in 2023

The big one: can they score more goals, pretty please?

MikeRussellFoto / Sounder at Heart

For their 2023 season, OL Reign will return nearly every player from last year’s NWSL Shield-winning roster. Pretty awesome, right? While having so many players who understand head coach Laura Harvey’s system is nothing but positive, the Reign will still be put to the test this season. Several clubs have made record signings and bold trades to rebuild or strengthen their rosters. On top of that, OL Reign could have up to eight players absent in July and August during the Women’s World Cup.

OL Reign appears set to defend their NWSL Shield, but fans are still dreaming about that elusive NWSL Championship title. With still more than a month of preseason remaining, here are five questions I think the Reign will need to answer to help make that dream a possibility.

Can they put the ball in the net?

Let’s not dance around it. While the road to the NWSL Shield was a lot of fun, some of that 2022 season was frustrating — especially with the team creating plenty of great chances but failing to put them in the back of the net. Remembers that 1-1 draw with Racing Louisville in August? I want to forget it as well, but in the spirit of learning from the pain, let’s take another look at the xG chart: 2.52 xG for the Reign, and 0.53 for Louisville. Ouch.

The team evened things out toward the end of the regular season, but they would have run away with the Shield if they put away a few more chances. Across the entire season, OL Reign was second in expected goals (37.15), but only put 32 in the net.

There is one factor that we probably didn’t discuss enough in 2022: the schedule. It was brutal for virtually every team, and OL Reign dealt with a lot of midweek matches and rough away trips. The schedule is more balanced for the 2023 season, which should help. In addition, the team added Elyse Bennett, and she brings something different than the other forwards on the squad. They also have a full season with Jordyn Huitema, who ended the year on a tear. Can the team find the finishing touch early, and keep it going all season?

Do they have the depth to go far?

While the regular season won’t be impacted as dramatically by the World Cup this year, OL Reign could still be without the majority of their preferred XI for much of July and August. They could be looking at needing to fill three holes on the back line, three in the midfield, and two at forward. Like every team in the league, OL Reign’s depth will be tested during this time. The Reign welcomed seven rookies to the team last year and drafted two this year.

Last year, the Reign’s young players rose to the occasion when called upon. Olivia van der Jagt had a breakout year. Olivia Athens and Marley Canales stepped up in their first NWSL starts in the 2-2 draw with Portland. Ryanne Brown and Alyssa Malonson earned meaningful minutes in their loan spells abroad. And the young players all contributed to OL Reign’s Women’s Cup victory. Can they step up again and play important roles this season?

Can they start the year strong?

The World Cup break comes after more than half of the regular season has been played. Getting momentum ahead of the tournament will be critical. While it took some time for OL Reign to move up the ladder last year, they obviously got results when it mattered. But this season is different — can they set the tone early and maintain it all season?

Can the league-best defense repeat?

The Reign defense was the best in the league in 2022 — allowing just 13 goals in 22 matches. The team also didn’t give away a single set-piece goal and didn’t let any team score after the 75th minute. Talk about focus.

The entire backline is back, aside from Sinclaire Miramontez. The Reign also have a new addition: U.S. women’s national team defender Emily Sonnett. Harvey has admitted that bringing Sonnett to the Reign wasn’t a proactive move. It was a strategic one when the opportunity presented itself. Harvey believed it would be silly to let a versatile player like Sonnett slip.

But where does the U.S. Women’s National Team defender fit in the Reign system? Does she take Sam Hiatt’s starting spot at centerback — a move that doesn’t make sense, considering the league-best numbers the Reign put up last year? Or does she slot into an outside back role, which she’s played frequently on the national team? Could a new formation be in consideration, like a 3-5-2? Possibly, but that leaves plenty of questions about who you drop in the attack.

Only time will tell, but with so many players returning, along with new additions, the team will be expected to dominate on defense yet again. Can they repeat?

Do they have enough speed?

I’ll admit, I hate asking this question — speed alone doesn’t win matches. Still, I left the Reign semifinal match against Kansas City wondering if a little more speed could have helped. Their frontline isn’t slow by any means, and bringing in Bennett only makes them faster. Neither is their midfield, which includes Rose Lavelle, who appears faster with the ball at her feet. Alana Cook can run with the best of them on the backline.

But there are teams who have a number of speedy players that often caused the Reign trouble last season. The defensive numbers showed they handled the threat well.

With that said, I think the Reign still have to prove they have the speed — or the right instincts — to compete with anyone.

While the regular season is what counts, OL Reign will have the chance to start answering these questions in their first preseason match against Club América. That match takes place at Starfire Stadium on Saturday, February 25, with tickets still available.

The Reign will also be participating in a preseason tournament in Portland, with the schedule and opponents still yet to be confirmed.

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