In the offseason, OL Reign seemed to hedge their bets on young, promising attacking talent. Early on, the team traded Jodie Taylor and Taylor Smith to North Carolina for Ally Watt. Watt, a prolific goalscorer at Texas A&M, tore her ACL within minutes of making her debut for the Courage in the Challenge Cup, so we haven’t yet seen what she can do stateside, but she did play in the last five games of Melbourne City’s 2020 W-League title run, scoring three goals. Reign also traded away forward Darian Jenkins to Utah/Kansas City in return for another 2020 draft pick: Tziarra King. King scored two goals in 2020 and is sure to play an important role in Tacoma. These new signings alongside Leah Pruitt, Bethany Balcer, and Nicole Momiki, round out a cadre of young but exciting players, some who will be especially important during the long international breaks this season.
In the Challenge Cup, Benstiti has made use of his pretty stacked roster, rotating players as he figures out his ideal starting IX. The good news is that they scored far more in this tournament than they did a year ago, so the team’s finishing has certainly improved. The bad news is that some of the problems from last season are still persisting today. In four games, the team ranks near the middle of the pack for total shots (45). But their average xG per shot is 0.06, tied with Kansas City for the lowest in the 2021 Challenge Cup. Furthermore, the team also ranks amongst the bottom third of teams in both entries into the penalty area and number of touches per entry, indicating that they’re not exactly getting into the shooting positions, either. Unlike last season where the team seemed to get into good spots without shooting, the team struggled to even get there in the first place. The team started slow with a loss and a draw during and directly following the international window. Once players returned from international duty and were able to play full games, Reign looked much more promising, pulling out wins in their final two games.
The team is likely to lose some of its most seasoned players for the Olympics and the run up to it. Most notable is obviously Megan Rapinoe, who opted out of the 2020 season, but is set to play this season, but is likely to miss a large portion of it. Non-US players will likely be gone for several weeks, too. Jess Fishlock may be named to the Team GB roster, Rosie White to New Zealand, Quinn to Canada, and Momiki to Japan, meaning the team will be down in numbers.
But worry not, OL Reign is planning for new, exciting players to join from their Supreme Overlords parent club, Lyon, after Champions League play concludes in May. Midfielder Dzsenifer Marozsan and keeper Sarah Bouhaddi are all confirmed headed to the US on loan. Legendary forward Eugénie Le Sommer is rumored to be joining the team as well. Lists that claim to rank the “best footballers of the year” aren’t always indicators of true talent, but both Marozsan and Le Sommer’s consistent presence on them is well deserved. Maraozsan has a proven track record of both scoring goals and providing quality service to her teammates; Lyon is much less dominant this season than in the past, yet Maro has notched nine goals (6.13 xG) and 14 assists (1.63 key passes per 90) across all competitions. Her presence on the team will hopefully provide some of what they were missing last season. Le Sommer is France’s highest goal scorer in history. She hasn’t quite found her goal scoring form this season, only scoring four goals and notching five assists in 1200 minutes, far less than the double digit numbers she records most seasons. If she can find her form again, her impact on the team will likely be immeasurable. Having Bouhaddi — the longtime starter for the French national team until last fall — in net will also be a welcome relief for Reign. The team had two experienced, starter quality keepers at the beginning of 2020 in young USWNT prospect Casey Murphy and established veteran Michelle Betos. The two rotated throughout the season, but left the team via trade or expansion draft in the offseason. And of course, we all continue to manifest the post-Olympics stateside return of Rose Lavelle, who has seen little (out of position) playing time at Manchester City (OL Reign traded for her playing rights in the offseason).
Last season, we speculated that OL Reign’s success hinged on finding a way to combine all their new and returning attacking talent into a system that works for them. Benstiti didn’t really accomplish that last season, and so that challenge mostly holds true once again. He now has a bunch of league games behind him and an understanding of demands of the league. If he can figure out a way to maximize the talent on the field between the Lyon legends, the team’s established vets, and the legion of young talent he’s brought in, a playoff run doesn’t seem out of reach. If their play is anything like 2020, however, it could be a long, long season.
It was the last preparation match before World Cup qualifying begins on Monday in Mexico against Haiti. Nine changes were made to the starting lineup from game to game, including starts for veterans Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe, as well
Let’s always talk about fullbacks
Carson Pickett made her United States debut at age 28, the oldest debut since McCall Zerboni debuted at age 30 in 2017 (the oldest field-player debut in history). Pickett became the first player with a limb difference to ever appear for the United States. It’s a great story; it’s also a deserved call-up based on league form (arguably one which should have happened a year ago, but the timing of the Olympics did not make for roster experimentation). Pickett nearly tallied an assist 32 minutes in when her well-placed cross found Midge Purce at the back post, but Purce got under the ball and put her header over the bar.
Opposite Pickett on the night was Sofia Huerta, whose 22nd-minute cross was redirected in by a Colombian defender for an own goal and the first tally of the night. Two minutes before that, Huerta served a great ball to the back post for Alex Morgan, who was shoved from behind but did not earn a penalty kick as she did on Saturday. Huerta also served the cross to Morgan in the 45th minute which Morgan hit off the bar.
Fullback remains a position without a lot of relative depth, the same as it ever was. Barring injury, Emily Fox will be the starting left back at the 2023 World Cup. You can bet on that. Who will be the right back?
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The United States women’s national team earned a 2-0 victory in their final tune-up match ahead of the Concacaf W Championship, which kicks off on July 4. After earning a 3-0 victory over Colombia in Colorado, the U.S. followed up with a 1-0 victory in Sandy, Utah, at Rio Tinto Stadium.
It was an own goal from Manuela Vanegas that gave the United States the lead and eventually the win. Sofia Huerta built up the play and fired the shot, but a deflection from Vanegas took the potential goal away from the OL Reign player.
The U.S. tested Colombian goalkeeper Catalina Pérez, who made two penalty saves against Lindsey Horan and Rose Lavelle in Colorado, with four shots on goal. Meanwhile, Colombia saw five shots with one going on target to threaten Alyssa Naeher, who earned the start in goal. On Saturday, Casey Murphy got the nod in goal.
A lightening delay occurred in the 75th minute, with a 30-minute pause. There were 15 minutes left, and not even two minutes into the return, Kelley O’Hara scored a screamer at the Rio Tinto, a stadium she featured in when a player for the Utah Royals FC.
Now, the United States will enter the Concacaf W Championship, being slotted in Group A with Mexico, Jamaica and Haiti — be sure to check out our Group A preview tomorrow. The U.S. kicks off competition on the Fourth of July against Haiti at 7 p.m. ET.
The Equalizer continues its group previews ahead of the 2022 UEFA Women’s EURO. Group D is yet another set of teams that threaten to perform with a set of intriguing and world-class players. France are by far the highest quality team in the group but Iceland, Italy and Belgium all possess players from Champions League level clubs with the ability to cause an upset on their day.
While France are expected to progress, the opportunity for an upset, and seeing two unorthodox teams qualify, is highest here. So, how does each look to shape up?
The French are polarizing figures in women’s football. On one hand, they’re blessed with top-class talent from youth to senior level with several selection headaches. On the other hand, they are plagued with controversy and resentment between coach and squad. The untimely and long-term implications of these tensions have convoluted their path to success with their golden generation. A more in-depth story on France’s issues can be found on The Equalizer later this week, but it’s worth noting that they are still considered one of the favorites to take the title.
Even with squad concerns, France have more than enough quality to take on the very best. They often line up in a 4-3-3 that relies on their attacking line to generate most of their chances. The midfield trio provides support through creativity and distribution. The basic tactical concept is to use the ball-playing central defenders to create passing opportunities into the middle before the midfield creates passing opportunities to the flanks, for the wide players to create 1-v-1 chances to create chances for mercurial striker Marie-Antionette Katoto.
Katoto is part of an attacking contingent that breeds fear and boasts one of the best counterattacking forward lines at the tournament. With Kadidiatou Diani, Selma Bacha, Sandy Baltimore, Delphine Cascarino and Katoto, France have a combination of players capable of playing in quick transitions and possess excellent technique and vision. Mostly, young players, they’re all experienced by club standards having played a regular part of their season as starters.
Further back, there is the experience of Griedge Mbock and Wendie Renard to lead their back line and ensure defensive solidarity covering the attacking Sakina Karchaoui from left back. The Paris Saint-Germain fullback has excelled this season, turning into one of the best left-backs in the world.
Iceland are the minnows of Group D, having qualified for a major tournament for just the fourth time in their history. Iceland will be looking forward to making a mark on the tournament with a talented squad. Having only progressed out of the group stages once, in 2013, they’ll be hoping to do so again. The last time they did, they reached the quarterfinals. Manager Thorsteinn Halldórsson will want to build on the performances at the SheBelieves Cup, where they finished second to the United States.
Tactically, Iceland stick to the basics and opt for route-one football. They avoid any intricate build-up patterns and look to play higher up the pitch and win second balls. In doing so, Iceland is able to progress farther up the field to start creating more clear-cut chances.
Their starting system is a 4-3-3 that complements their tactics. The long balls through the middle mean their three midfielders can converge to outnumber and win back possession. In the final third, they want to use their wide players to create goal-scoring opportunities through crosses and cutbacks. You’ll often see them played at the edge or just inside the penalty box for a late runner to shoot.
Alternatively, the long ball tactic is also used to create direct chances into the area. Their long throw-ins have given them a unique advantage in set pieces giving them a different angle of attack and one that can catch teams off guard. There’s very much a safety-first mentality with Iceland given that even in transition they look for comfort in numbers before committing players forward.
Iceland’s tactics can feel relatively primitive, but they possesses some class players who have yielded Champions League and other European domestic titles. Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir is their highest-profile player, having played for Wolfsburg and Lyon before recently signing for Juventus. The nomadic midfielder is their talismanic figure and will feature as a box-to-box No. 8. Dagný Brynjarsdóttir is their deep-lying central midfielder anchoring the base of midfield. The West Ham star is another experienced international that will guide Iceland through some tricky fixtures.
Karólína Lea Vilhjálmsdóttir is a 20-year-old midfielder that plays her football with Bayern Munich that could give Iceland more attacking drive from midfield. Lastly, Sveindís Jane Jónsdóttir is arguably their most anticipated starlet having played a major role for Wolfsburg this season. Known for her long throws, Jónsdóttir is a quick, technical winger that drives down the flanks excelling in 1-v-1 situations.
This mixture of young and experienced gives Iceland a good blend that could see them be very difficult to beat.
Milena Bertolini came through as head coach after a series of disappointments for the Italian women’s national team. Their participation in the 2022 EURO will be more than just making up the numbers. The squad is built of some world-class players and can be considered dark horses. Le Azzurre reached the quarterfinals of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup before being knocked out by the eventual finalists, the Netherlands, showing the quality they possess in recent history.
From a tactical perspective, Italy is a possession-based side that look to operate using short, incisive passes to create goal-scoring opportunities. Given that most top teams will adopt a similar strategy, Italy will have to adjust slightly but their strong squad gives them a chance to compete and dominate, especially in the midfield areas. Italy have averaged close to 60% possession in the last 12 months which supports this notion and is likely to continue.
Their midfield setup means they’re likely to use their defensive midfielder as a primary outlet and receiver. From here, the technical quality in these players is used to bypass any high presses and allow Italy to play through the thirds and unleash their explosive forwards. Manuela Giugliano is their single pivot and will be integral to their build-up phase. Aurora Galli and Arianna Caruso possess a good mix of creativity, passing and energy that should see them create enough chances and moments of progression.
Sara Gama is their defensive stalwart and will be hugely important in making sure Italy is hard to beat.
It is in attack where Italy shine, with Barbara Bonansea, Cristiana Girelli and Valentina Cernoia. The three forwards are clinical and creative playing their football together at Juventus. Bonansea is their talismanic figure and will be relied upon to burden much of the creativity. Agnese Bonfantini is a 22-year-old midfielder that is sure to be an explosive presence in midfield whether it be off the bench or from the start. The midfielder shined under Joe Montemurro at Juventus last season and will relish the chance to soak up the experience in London.
Rounding off Group D are Belgium. The Belgian Red Flames come into the tournament in good form having finished top of their qualifying group with just one loss, making their second-ever appearance. Ives Serneels will be confident in qualifying from the group if they can take points off Italy and Iceland.
Belgium’s tactical history involves them being a very hard-to-beat side that uses pace in transition to win. Often in a narrow 4-4-2 diamond, they can also play a 4-3-3 system. This formation allows Serneels to play to his players’ strengths and keep a compact central space and force teams to go wide. The 4-4-2 diamond transitions into a 2-3-5 attacking shape, giving them numerical superiority and width. The speed and creativity they possess allows them to do this effectively.
Tine de Caigny is their specialist attacking midfielder and will be the one to connect the forwards and create from a deeper position. The Hoffenheim attacker is a mobile player that can both score goals and create. However, their two standout players are striker Tessa Wullaert and midfielder Janice Cayman. The partnership between Wullaert and Hannah Eurlings is most important to overpower opposition defenses and play on the shoulder in the 2-3-5 attacking structure. Wullaert will look to operate between the spaces and latch onto deep passes through the channels.
Cayman is a versatile player capable of playing at right back, on the wings, and in midfield. Although she may start in midfield, we could see Cayman moved around as the game progresses. The left midfield spot will likely belong to Sarah Wijnants, who is their creative hub and particularly her movement from the wing will cause a major threat to opponents.