On Sunday, March 26, OL Reign kicks off its 2023 NWSL campaign, where the club hopes to earn its fourth NWSL Shield and that elusive NWSL Championship trophy. The Reign brought back a league-high 24 players from their squad in 2022, which in addition to boasting the best record also had the best defensive numbers.
But OL Reign doesn’t enter this season complacent or overly confident. After failing to advance to the NWSL final, and struggling on the offensive end at times last year, the Reign still feel like they have plenty to prove.
Each team is going to have its depth tested this season, with key players getting pulled away for the Women’s World Cup this summer. OL Reign is no exception, and if the squad is going to go far this year, every player is going to play an important role. While this might be the deepest team the Reign have ever had, and therefore every player has the potential for a standout year, here are five players we think are poised for breakout roles in 2023.
Olivia Athens scored in her first start last July — against Portland, to boot. Athens is emerging from her rookie season and can play in an attacking midfield role or on the frontline. She’s got a clean touch and calm feel on the ball that is reminiscent of Dzsenifer Marozsán. Athens might not get on the scoresheet a ton, but the UCLA grad helps the team keep possession and has great field vision. When the team is going to look to depth during the Challenge Cup and as they play through the World Cup, Athens will be critical.
It might be a little strange to put a starter from last season’s backline on this list. After all, the Reign allowed the fewest goals in 2022. Still, it feels like Sam Hiatt didn’t quite get the recognition she deserved last year. The Stanford graduate provides a steady balance on the backline. She’s got great timing and instinct in the box. Hiatt led the team last year in blocked shots and won 64% of her aerial duels, the best on the backline. She also completed 80% of her passes, good for third-best on the squad behind Kim Little and Quinn. Hiatt is ready to take the next step up in her career and put her name on some NWSL Team of the Month lists. When Alana Cook and Sofia Huerta depart for the World Cup, Hiatt’s leadership on the backline is going to be a huge benefit for the Reign.
Head coach Laura Harvey requires a lot of defensive pressure and effort from her wide forwards, and it can be an adjustment for newcomers. In 2022, you could see Tziarra King begin to make that switch. She has seemed even more confident in this role during the 2023 preseason. What King brings to the frontline is a unique ability to create space in the box. As you can see from the chart below, King was second in the league last year in shots and touches in the box per 90. She was also fourth in shots on target per 90. With a little more confidence — and hopefully, more minutes — King is poised for a breakout year with the Reign.
A graphic a day until the #NWSL returns - Day 8— Tony ⚡⭐⭐⭐ (@xGisfornerds) January 23, 2023
The one from today. The proportion of shots taken to the touches in the box they had. Surprising no one Sophia Smith is deadly (@sophsssmith) while players like Rodman, Salmon, Press or Ordoñez have many shots for their touches pic.twitter.com/NFzFYydN28
With Sofia Huerta likely heading to the World Cup, OL Reign will need to call on their depth at right back. After a successful loan spell last year, Ryanne Brown is back with the Reign and looks ready to settle into that role. Coming out of college at Wake Forest, Brown was known as a great defender and solid crosser. She spent a little time in the attack in 2020 for Wake Forest, and last year with FC Nordsjælland of the Danish Elitedivisionen. If this preseason is any indication, Brown looks to be a solid 1-v-1 defender and provides dangerous service from the right wing. Can she translate that into NWSL play? We think she’s ready.
We got to see glimpses of Jordyn Huitema’s strengths and potential toward the end of the 2022 season. After the Reign signed Huitema, she was immediately thrown into the starting lineup without much time at all to integrate with the squad and understand Harvey’s system. She’s now had that time, and Huitema looks hungry to show the world what she can offer this year. It’s hard to call someone who already has more than 60 caps with the Canadian national team — at just 21 years old — a “breakout” player. Still, we think she’s ready to make a name for herself in the NWSL. Huitema can cause lots of chaos in the box, has a nose for goal, and is always a dangerous option in the air. She’ll likely be on a flight to Australia/New Zealand this summer, but that won’t stop Huitema from terrifying defenses before and after her World Cup journey.
OL Reign’s 2023 campaign starts Sunday, March 26, with a road match against the Washington Spirit. The match kicks off at 1 PM PT and will stream on Paramount+. Which OL Reign players do you think are ready to have breakout seasons?