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OL Reign close out preseason with win over Portland

The 1-0 win came courtesy of a Jess Fishlock banger

NWSL: NWSL Preseason-Racing Louisville at U.S. Under-23 Women’s National Team Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

OL Reign had their final test of the Portland preseason tournament on Saturday night when the club faced longtime rivals, Portland Thorns FC. After dominating the first half, and holding steady under some pressure in the second, the Reign left Portland with a 1-0 win thanks to a Jess Fishlock banger.

Both sides started with most of their first-choice lineups, with the Thorns rotating a few more players than the Reign. Elyse Bennett, Jordyn Huitema, and Bethany Balcer started on the Reign frontline. Emily Sonnett again started in the holding midfield role, with Fishlock and Rose Lavelle in the midfield with her. Lauren Barnes, Sam Hiatt, Alana Cook, and Sofia Huerta rounded out the backline, and Phallon Tullis-Joyce got her first start in Portland.

Sophia Smith, Rocky Rodriguez, and Crystal Dunn were a few players left off the starting lineup for Portland, who otherwise had their starters from last year in the match. Smith was apparently a scratch, as she was sick.

It was all Reign in the first half. From the first whistle, the Reign were putting pressure on the Thorns backline and winning battles in the midfield. Huitema got the ball twice in the box in the first minute, but both shots were blocked. Five minutes later, she won the second ball again from a Cook long ball into the box, but Thorns goalkeeper Bella Bixby was able to pounce on the ball as Huitema tried to get a shot off.

In the 15th minute, Huerta sent her trademark cross into the box, and Bennett was able to whip in a header on the far post which was on-frame but right at Bixby.

In the 18th minute, the Reign found their game-winning goal. Fishlock received the ball in the middle of the pitch. She took a touch to set herself up, and still with no pressure on her from Portland unleashed a shot from about 20 yards out. The ball flew by an outstretched Bixby and into the upper left corner of the net.

Fishlock admitted after the match that her “first touch was shit,” but she was happy that she still had time to get a shot off. She did a little shimmy dance after the goal to celebrate the fact that she was able to adjust and score a banger.

Portland’s only good chance of the half came two minutes later when Christine Sinclair pounced on a Reign clearance that fell to the top of the box. After taking a couple of touches to her right, she sent a shot that was low and placed to the right corner, but it went just wide of the goal.

Huerta and Huitema both got good looks to close out the half, with Huerta’s shot from just inside the box — off a Lavelle pass — going over the crossbar and Huitema trying from a tight angle under pressure, which Bixby was able to save. The half finished with the Reign dominating possession and out-shooting the Thorns 7-3.

The second half was more of a wide-open affair, as the Reign purposefully had to deal with heavy legs. Similar to last year, Reign head coach Laura Harvey had the team do regular trainings in between their three matches in the preseason tournament — trying to build up fitness and test the team’s mental resolve when tired.

The Reign made just one change at halftime, bringing Tziarra King on to replace Bennett, who put a lot of pressure on the Thorns and looks to be a promising addition to the Reign frontline. While the Reign controlled the first 15 minutes of the second half, with Lavelle and Balcer both getting shots off, things began to shift around the 60th minute.

A chipped Izzy D’Aquila shot from just outside the six-yard box looked to be looping over Tullis-Joyce but hit the top of the net. An Olivia Moultrie curling shot from just inside the box went just high and wide — but not by much. The chance came thanks to a Crystal Dunn dropped pass, and Dunn was active for all 30 minutes of her sub appearance.

Right around this time, Olivia Van der Jagt subbed on for Balcer, with Lavelle moving to the right wing. This was the second time in the tournament that Lavelle moved to the wing to close out the match — and is perhaps something the team will try as games progress due to the enormous depth the team has in the midfield.

Rocky Rodriguez got two great looks after subbing on in the 74th minute. She unleashed a shot from about 15 yards out that was hit with power but went just wide. Two minutes later, she tried a “Fishlock” from distance, but that blast whizzed over the goal.

There weren’t too many chances in the final 15 minutes, and the Reign brought on two final subs to preserve their lead. Veronica Latsko came on for Huitema, who put in a solid shift and worked really hard. Nikki Stanton subbed in for Fishlock, who smiled, waved, and clapped at the Portland crowd as they booed her loudly.

“There’s still always a different kind of bite to these games than it is like Louisville and the U-23s, and so I was really happy that we got to get into what an intense NWSL game kind of looks like just because it was Portland,” Fishlock said with a smile after the match.

The match ended at 1-0, and the Reign still had the shots advantage, getting 12 shots off to Portland’s 10. The defense did its job, and even with Portland putting them under more pressure, Tullis-Joyce didn’t have to come up with any spectacular saves.

After the match, Harvey said she was really pleased with her team’s performance throughout the weeklong preseason tournament — which isn’t just about the wins and losses. It’s about trying certain things and getting minutes for everyone on the squad. Each match presented a different kind of challenge for the team.

“I love this tournament. I think it’s really good. You sort of know with the U-23s that you can potentially have a lot of the ball, and then we rotated for the Louisville game, and a lot of those players who have been with us last year hadn’t maybe played a ton of minutes all the time, so I think it was important that they got exposed against NWSL opposition, which is great,” Harvey said. She praised those players for doing some great things in the 2-0 loss to Louisville, noting that they learned a lot.

“And then, it’s Seattle-Portland, and I don’t care what anyone tells me, it’s never going to be a preseason friendly. So, I think to set the game up and it be the last one when we’ve had a really tough week ... I think the players dug in and showed how much it means, honestly, to play in a game like this.”

After a two-month preseason, OL Reign now turn their eyes to the regular season. The club kicks off the 2023 season on the road. On Sunday, March 26, the Reign will face the Washington Spirit at 1 PM PT. That match at Audi Field will stream on Paramount+.

Closing Notes

  • Harvey confirmed that Megan Rapinoe and Quinn are dealing with minor knocks that they picked up in training. Quinn was doing some of the passing drills with the team in warmups on Saturday, and Harvey said Pinoe has been training some with the team this week. She doesn’t expect either injury to be major, and both players will be evaluated for their regular-season opener next Sunday.
  • When asked after the match about where Sonnett fits on this squad, Harvey confirmed that she’s still looking at the USWNT player in multiple positions: “Just Sonnett on the field is a biggie.” Harvey played Sonnett for less than a half at centerback and twice as a holding midfielder — she likes her there because she’s super aggressive, great in tight spaces, and good on the ball. Harvey credited everyone on the squad for fighting for their position and making her choice hard.
  • Harvey is excited about Elyse Bennett’s potential with this team, noting her 1-v-1 qualities. She conceded that she asks a lot of her wide forwards in the press, and it can be an adjustment, but Harvey is excited about Bennett’s progress because the forward works incredibly hard — “and when she gets it [the press] right, she’s so effective.”
  • Both Alana Cook and Harvey mentioned that the players were very involved in the design of the new Purpose kit. The players told the team that they wanted a jersey that connected more with the community and Seattle, and were so excited with how it turned out. Of course, captain Lu Barnes was “massively involved,” according to Harvey.

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