There will be a first-time National Women’s Soccer League winner this weekend when OL Reign meet Gotham FC in the Championship. The Reign will be hoping, finally, to win the championship game, after three Shield victories without further success. Gotham, on the other hand, is aiming to go from ‘worst to first’, a turnaround the Kansas City Current came so close to achieving last year.
Here, we will dig into the decisive tactical moves from the two teams’ regular-season meetings, and offer ideas as to what the Championship game could look like.
Reign build-up befuddles Gotham in Game 1
The first match-up took place on April 1 at Red Bull Arena, with the Reign winning 2-0. During this game, we saw a recurrence of a theme that began in 2022, as Laura Harvey’s side built possession from a three-back.
Left fullback Lauren Barnes tucked in alongside Sam Hiatt and Alana Cook. One of the two holding midfielders, Olivia van der Jagt, regularly drifted out to the left flank, while right-fullback Sofia Huerta pushed forward on the other side. The dynamic looked like this:
Gotham loves to put pressure on their opponents, asking questions of a team’s ability to handle the ball with a Lynn Williams or Delanie Sheehan sprinting at them. With their super-high line and sweeper-keeper, it can be an intimidating prospect. Most NWSL teams simply cannot circulate possession like they’d want to under such duress. But the Reign did.
With their hybrid system—a four-back becoming a three-back in possession—the Reign’s outside backs found themselves with time and space to look up, assess the scene, and pick a pass. Gotham, essentially outnumbered 6-v-5 in that area of the field, just couldn’t get to grips with it.
Cook and Barnes made full use of their time and space, finding the runs behind made by Jess Fishlock or picking out Rose Lavelle floating between the lines. Gotham’s holding midfielder Allie Long was often overloaded 2-v-1 by this energetic, creative pairing. Time after time, Lavelle was found in a position to run at a retreating Gotham defense. And, eventually, she slid in Fishlock for the opening goal.
As a result of all this, Gotham struggled to get a foothold in game one, with the Reign consistently penetrating them through the middle. The NWSL’s best pressing side were ruthlessly defanged, and they finished the game without a shot on target.
Gotham learn their lesson for Game 2
The second meeting between the two teams took place not long after the first, on May 21 at Lumen Field. Very quickly it became clear that Gotham had learned their lesson from the 2-0 defeat. Juan Carlos Amoros, his staff, and his players, came out with a different defensive shape, one that enabled them to completely nullify the Reign’s unique build-up structure.
Gotham’s usual setup is a 4-5-1 that becomes a 4-4-2 when one of the midfielders steps up to press. This time, however, it was a 4-3-2-1. The two attacking midfielders—Kristie Mewis and Sinead Farrelly—marked the Reign’s holding midfielders, while the wingers—Williams and Taylor Smith—tucked in closer to Nealy Martin to cover the Reign’s options further forward.
The changed setup made it extremely difficult for the Reign’s defenders to pick a pass into midfield. Their options were either tightly man-marked, or had Williams, Martin and Smith hovering nearby. This, combined with clever positioning and pressing angles from Gotham’s front players, forced the Reign into a more direct game.
This meant more 50/50 contests, more loose balls, and a Reign side that lacked control of possession. Gotham kept forcing back-passes, long balls, and turnovers. It was all the Reign could do to get past halfway.
Jenna Nighswonger gave Gotham the lead on 10 minutes with a wonder strike from long range, before Williams robbed a dallying Barnes to double the advantage two minutes later. Gotham got a third before half-time to all but seal victory, this one coming from Taylor Smith after yet another pressure-induced turnover in the Reign’s half.
This tactical change, and the frenetic 45 minutes that followed, was the moment Gotham officially turned the tables on the Reign. It was also the moment that they confirmed their status as a threat to anyone in the league.
A lot has changed since those games, which took place early on in the campaign. In their playoff win over the San Diego Wave, the Reign built possession with a more traditional four-back setup. The fullbacks were the fullbacks and the center-backs were the center-backs. Huerta stayed much deeper than she has done in the past, almost as if to draw out San Diego’s press.
Another crucial factor is the return of Lavelle, who started against San Diego after a spell out with injury post-World Cup. She tore Gotham apart when the Reign first met them this season, but missed the second clash. Her movement between the lines and dribbling ability injects a boost of energy and efficacy into the Reign’s attacking play. Gotham may need to adjust their defense simply to deal with her presence.
As for Gotham, one of the big developments is their improvement in possession as the campaign has gone on. They went long over the Reign’s press in both regular season meetings, mostly aiming for Williams on the wing. This weekend, however, it would not be a surprise to see them keep the ball on the deck more often.
There are also the arrivals of Esther Gonzalez, Maitane Lopez and Katie Stengel. All three have made a tangible difference to the team, but the Reign have yet to face Gotham with any of them in the lineup.
The Reign and Gotham shared the spoils early on in the regular season. Since then, a lot has changed. Will they regress to old patterns, or will new ones emerge? Gotham spent their last two meetings trying—and eventually succeeding—to figure out the Reign’s build-up play. However, with their newfound confidence on the ball, maybe Gotham will end up dominating possession this weekend, while the Reign tries to win it back high up the field?
This is the sort of uncertainty preceding what should be a tactically intriguing, perhaps even cagey, NWSL Championship.
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