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OL Reign earn comfortable win over U.S. U-23s

Two Bethany Balcer goals powered a 3-0 preseason victory.

Nikita Taparia

OL Reign earned a comfortable 3-0 win against the United States U-23 women’s national team on Sunday to open the Portland preseason tournament. Two goals from Bethany Balcer in the first half and a U-23 own goal in the second powered the Reign attack, while the defense only had to deal with two U-23 shots the entire match.

Tziarra King, Jordyn Huitema, and Bethany Balcer started on the frontline for the Reign, with Rose Lavelle, Jess Fishlock, and new Reign edition Emily Sonnett rounding out the midfield. Head coach Laura Harvey has indicated that she might be looking to play Sonnett outside of the centerback position, where she’s played most in the NWSL. With Quinn unavailable for Sunday’s game, Sonnett got the start as the Reign’s holding midfielder.

Lauren Barnes, Phoebe McClernon, Alana Cook, and Sofia Huerta started on the backline, while Claudia Dickey got the nod in goal.

OL Reign put the pressure on the U-23s right at kickoff. King blocked a U-23 pass in the Reign’s attacking third. She quickly found Huitema in the box, who got a shot off. It was low and to the left corner, but U-23 goalkeeper Neeku Purcell — a Reign Academy grad now playing at UCLA — pushed it away for a corner.

After the Reign gave up a U-23 shot just a minute later — which went well wide — they were dominant for the rest of the first half. The U-23s rarely managed to get into their attacking third, as the entire OL Reign frontline put the U-23 squad under constant pressure, pushing them into turnovers.

The Reign were rewarded in the 17th minute. After earning a free kick near the top of the box, the Reign sent a short pass to the right to Huerta. The right back blasted a shot just inside the 18-yard box, which skimmed off the crossbar. The ball fell to Cook on the left wing, who was up from the free kick. Cook sent a lovely cross into the box, and Balcer beat her defender to it, sending a shot rolling low and to the corner from the six-yard box.

Balcer got her second goal in the 32nd minute. Huerta received a ball on the right side just outside the box. She whipped a low cross into the box that looked like it might be slightly behind Balcer, but the forward twisted her body and connected with the cross using her right foot — sending a shot to the lower left corner. There was nothing Purcell could do, and the Reign went up 2-0.

It was all OL Reign to close out the half. Huitema couldn’t quite control a lovely Balcer cross, King stole the ball from her defender and dribbled it toward goal before unleashing a near-post shot that was saved, and the Reign dominated possession — moving the ball with ease from the left to the right.

The Reign made two changes at halftime. Olivia Van der Jagt subbed in for Balcer and Sam Hiatt came on for McClernon. Fishlock moved up to attacking midfield, Van der Jagt settled in behind her as a box-to-box midfielder in front of Sonnett, and Lavelle moved to the right wing.

There weren’t too many significant chances for the Reign at the start of the second half, but King had a great look in the 56th minute. Lavelle got the ball at the top of the box and dribbled it left toward King. She found King with a through-ball into the box, and King unleashed a shot that was hard and toward the near-post upper corner. Purcell came up with another good save for the U-23s to keep it at 2-0.

A minute later, however, OL Reign got their third goal. Lavelle collected a pass on the right side and sent a cross across the goal — right toward the danger zone just in front of the six-yard box. King was making a run into that space and fighting to win the ball. Unfortunately for the U-23 squad, they got there just before King but it bounced off two players and deflected into their own goal.

That would be the last action for King, who subbed off in the 58th minute. She was replaced by Elyse Bennett on the left wing, while Olivia Athens came on for Fishlock and Veronica Latsko settled in at right wing, replacing Lavelle.

While OL Reign dominated possession for the next 15 minutes, there was little dangerous action in front of goal, with the U-23s defending well. In the 74th minute, Jimena López replaced Barnes, and Marley Canales came on for Sonnett, who was a key part of the Reign’s build-up and looked solid as the team’s holding midfielder — sending a couple of great diagonal balls to her wing players.

In the 82nd minute, Ryanne Brown replaced Huerta, and Natalie Viggiano subbed in for Huitema, who got herself into some dangerous spots and managed to get a couple of shots off early in the match — but faded a little when the substitutes came on.

The Reign maintained possession for the rest of the game, and it ended at 3-0 for the Seattle-based club. The Reign had 15 shots, while the U-23s only had two, and the Reign had a 7-2 advantage on corners. The U-23 squad consists of players still in college, and I wouldn’t exactly call it their A-squad, either. Still, OL Reign established their dominance over the U-23 side for the entire 90 minutes and looked really strong with the ball.

The Reign will have their next test against NWSL club Racing Louisville on Wednesday, March 15. That match kicks off at 5 PM PT. There is no livestream, so the only way fans can follow the action is in person at Providence Park. Ride of the Valkyries will be at the match and will be posting live updates on Twitter at @RoValks.

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