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We’ve detailed how each Challenge Cup semifinalist was/is struggling to replicate preseason tournament successes, and OL Reign are part of that bunch. There is, however, some variance within the group. The Courage and Current are floundering at the bottom of the table while the Spirit are treading water through a brutal run of games.
Reign, on the other hand, have shot themselves up to third on the table despite only scoring two goals in their previous four matches. They’ve done this by leaning on their incredibly stingy defense.
360 minutes without conceding a goal, and counting
OL Reign have kept a clean sheet (zero goals allowed) in their previous four matches. To put it another way, no one has scored on the Reign since May 8. And it’s not like this run has been against easy-to-handle opposition.
It started at the home of Pacific Northwest rivals Portland Thorns, then last year’s champion Washington Spirit, then fellow Challenge Cup semifinalist Kansas City Current. Surprising one-month-in table toppers San Diego Wave were the most recent to come up against the Reign’s defense and leave with nothing.
Laura Harvey’s OL Reign are an incredibly well-drilled unit who are active and understand their, and each others’, roles extremely well. She deploys a 4-2-3-1 formation with two midfielders sweeping above the backline to funnel opposition into areas where they can be easily dealt with. Quinn, one of the best defensive midfielders in the league, often pairs with Jess Fishlock or rookie Olivia Van der Jagt to disrupt buildup play and set tempo in possession.
However, the backline is the biggest strength, and continuity is key. While a player may change from time to time, Reign typically want to line up with Lu Barnes at left back, a center back pairing of Samantha Hiatt and Alana Cook, with Sophia Huerta at right back. Cook and Huerta are the most consistent of the back four, with both having started all six matches and playing every one of the 540 available minutes.
This continuity, when paired with the protection of two intelligent and hardworking midfielders ahead, helps keep opposition attacks desperate and predictable.
The anchor of the group is unquestionably USWNT defender Alana Cook. A calm and sometimes understated presence, Cook has developed into one of the best center backs in the women’s game. A season ago Cook started half of Paris St. Germain’s league matches as they went on to snap Lyon’s streak of eight consecutive league titles.
Cook’s awareness and intelligent positioning make her extremely difficult to beat. She’s a rangy defender who is good at frustrating attackers by finding windows to get a toe on the ball or using her strength to shepherd them away from goal.
If all that wasn’t frustrating enough, Reign also have a tremendous goalkeeper in Phallon Tullis-Joyce. Imagine being an attacker who successfully evades a snapping midfield and somehow works out a rare sight at goal with enough time to execute a strike, and your reward is releasing a shot at a 6-foot goalkeeper who may or may not be several octopuses in a trench coat.
Congratulations, the helplessness you just felt gives you something in common with Thorns, Spirit, Current and Wave attackers. And, if Reign keep this up, this sad little club will continue growing.