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OL Reign change coaches, but the team looks familiar

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There’s actually a fair bit of continuity here, and Reign should be aiming to make a deep run.

SOCCER: APR 15 NWSL - Seattle Reign at Sky Blue FC Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Hello, welcome to the OL Reign Fanfiction Hour! I’m your host, Kim.

OL Reign is the only club that did not make its coach available for this series. It’s a team with a brand new coach and six new players with previous professional experience, plus its biggest star sitting out of the tournament. Two important players are returning from ACL injuries as well. Coach Farid Benstiti’s most recent job was in China, where video and stats on the women’s league are not readily available.

So, if I’m being completely honest with you, everything here is a guess. It’s a somewhat educated guess based on watching all of these players, but a guess nonetheless.

The good news is that I’m guessing the Reign is going to be a good team, and a deep one.

Susie Rantz of Ride of the Valkyries agrees. “I think one of the Reign’s strongest attributes right now is that they have depth across the board,” she says. “The Reign have so many options, which in the end should hopefully serve them well. I think it could balance the scoring threat more equally across the team, instead of relying on just one or two players for goals.”

Megan Rapinoe has opted not to play in this tournament, but her absence could create an opportunity for young players like Bethany Balcer and Darian Jenkins to prove they deserve bigger roles in the team. Japanese international Yuka Momiki should prove to be a fantastic acquisition, and I’m excited to see how she combines with another new arrival, Costa Rica legend Shirley Cruz.

Reign’s success or failure should come down to how quickly Benstiti was able to instill his ideas in his new team. It certainly has the talent to compete with anyone at the NWSL Challenge Cup.

Let’s watch a fun player’s highlights

USWNT prospect Alana Cook has also arrived on a short-term loan from Paris Saint-Germain, and should slot right into a starting center back role. Check out her college highlights.

Who’s missing?

Besides Rapinoe, left back Julia Ashley and newly acquired striker Leah Pruitt will miss the tournament due to injury.

Projected lineup

Don’t get too hung up on this predicted lineup for two reasons. One, it’s based on zero information besides what I think of the players. Two, the Reign have the smallest difference between its best and second XI of any team in the league and can afford to rotate heavily.

Lineup questions

There’s a question at almost every position. I’ll just do a bunch of bullet points.

  • Taylor might not be the style of striker Benstiti wants. Sofia Huerta recently revealed she’s been practicing there, and she’d be more of a false nine type.
  • Balcer has also played striker, as well as central attacking midfield, and could pop up anywhere.
  • Jenkins could start at left wing too, but she also played right wingback during her time in Australia.
  • Fishlock and Taylor Smith are coming back from ACL tears, so I don’t know how fit they’ll be.
  • That’s an old-looking midfield, huh? I wonder if Morgan Andrews plays most games just to have some young legs in there.

How do the Reign play?

Vlatko Andonovski worked some miracles last season, but he also got very lucky. Reign’s non-penalty Expected Goals differential was negative, so it’s pretty incredible that the club was able to beat out Utah and Washington to make the playoffs.

The team was about as standard and balanced as possible in almost every respect. It was a mid-block team that was around league average in pressing aggression, how often it got the ball into the box, and how frequently it crossed vs. getting into the box via other types of passes. The one thing the Reign was very good at was converting the times it did win the ball back via a high press into quick shots.

This is all fairly irrelevant with a new coach, but given his push to acquire Cruz and Momiki, I assume that Benstiti wants to play a very possession-oriented game.

Alana Cook auditions for a USWNT spot

On Friday, we learned that Andonovski and three members of his staff will spend the month in Utah and attend every Challenge Cup match. That’s great news for Cook, who is currently on the fringes of the USWNT setup. She’s had one cap, but isn’t yet a full-time national team player.

“I was absolutely shocked and delighted to hear about Cook joining the Reign for the Challenge Cup,” Rantz says. “She is really poised to be one of the best centerbacks for the USWNT. She could be huge for the Reign this summer.”

With Megan Oyster departing, it’s widely expected that Cook will start most games for the Reign at the tournament.

Cook has turned in some excellent performances for PSG, but has been brought along slowly, sitting out most of the big games against Olympique Lyonnais and big Champions League opponents.

If there’s one thing Cook has to work on, it’s probably her range of passing. She’s comfortable with the ball at her feet and tidy when playing it short, but needs to add the ability to beat a line of pressure without turning the ball over to become an elite player.

Can Jess Fishlock get back to her former level?

Jess Fishlock wasn’t just good before her injury. She was the best attacking central midfielder in NWSL, leading the league in both xG and xG assisted per 90 minutes.

But it’s notable that she was among the worst midfielders for pressure regains, and that was before a serious knee injury. Sometimes that stat is extremely team style dependent, but the Reign did a fair bit of pressing. I put her next to Cruz in my projected lineup, but it’s possible Reign need to play someone who does a lot of running next to Fishlock to get the most out of her attacking talents.

What’s a successful tournament for the Reign?

The North Carolina Courage remain the favorites, but Reign should be aiming to make the final. Having a new coach and missing Rapinoe aren’t excuses — this team is good enough to beat anyone.

Schedule

Sky Blue FC vs. Reign — Tuesday, June 30

Dash vs. Reign — Saturday, July 4

Royals vs. Reign — Wednesday, July 8

Reign vs. Thorns — Monday, July 13