Not to take anything away from the Spirit's well-deserved victory--including Ashley Sanchez’s magical game-winning goal, which emulated Marta's coolness as she used the outside of her right foot to curl the ball into the net from a very difficult angle--but a post mortem is needed on how and why the Reign failed to win this game. It's not just their inability to capitalize on scoring opportunities or their incapacity to cope with the Spirit game plan. There was something deeper going on here.
Accordingly, one needs to question Reign coach Laura Harvey's strategy and game management.
Opting for a 4-1-4-1 tactical formation, Harvey sought to leverage the strength of her midfield with the objective of being flexible enough to overload the attack while ensuring coverage of the half-spaces in transition. Critical to the success of this formation is having a quality defensive midfielder, whose role is multi-faceted. primarily sitting between the defense and midfield stifling the opposition's forays, as well as acting as the pivot when building the attack from the back. The other imperative is a natural striker; the player who invariably leads the team in goals scored and also draws enough attention to open spaces when on the attack.
That said, Reign fans must have felt fairly confident after scoring in the opening minutes and probably still felt that way despite Washington tying the score less than 10 minutes later. The optimism appeared justified, based on the missed opportunities afforded to both Megan Rapinoe and Eugenie Le Sommer, but the chances created were far fewer than usual for the team, which scored the most goals in the regular season.
Starting Dzsenifer Marozsan (Maro) as the single central striker was a mistake that needs to be noted. On the plus side, Harvey recognized that the Spirit's defense would focus on her German star, thereby leaving space and affording opportunities to both wingers, which led to the early first goal. Yet, the risk was giving up midfield control, as Maro's soccer acumen and technical ability as an attacking midfielder, or as a false nine, have resulted in her being identified as one of the best in that position in the world. According to the soccer analysts from FotMob, Maro won 61% of her tackles. 64% of her aerial duels and 54% of her one-on-one duels during the regular NWSL season. Those numbers demonstrate her skills when the Reign invoke a high press or when she is on the defensive side of the ball. The most telling statistic is that Maro was third-best in the NWSL by creating three scoring chances per match in her usual role. Yet reading the semifinal game statistical analysis, she only provided one chance!
Thus, the Spirit's 4-2-3-1 formation enabled Kris Ward's Washington to defend the attacking plan of the Reign. Yes, the team gave up some chances, which fortunately for them were not all realized, but their formation also facilitated their preference to leverage the right side of the pitch to overwhelm the Reign’s defense on counters. Overwhelmed by the aggressiveness of Washington’s Kelley O’Hara, Andi Sullivan and Emily Sonnett on both sides of the ball, OL’s left wing-back, Kristen McNabb, could not handle Trinity Rodman's situational awareness, speed or skill. Not surprisingly, McNabb was the lowest-rated field player by analysts post game. Rapinoe was not much help on defense, which also made Reign’s defensive midfielder, Quinn, less effective in their pivot role having to backstop what was happening along that flank.
Harvey did little to assist her defenders in negating Rodman's thrusts forward, or in countering the right flank attacking/defending strategy employed by the Spirit. Her mistake was further compounded by not changing the formation and/or personnel early enough to increase her squad’s options in the final third of play to take advantage of Maro’s known strengths. In the end, the result speaks for itself.