Facing the Dash tonight (on Hope Solo's birthday), the Reign wasted no time in proving that their weekend performance against Portland wasn't a fluke, but the new normal. In what should have been a tough game on short rest in difficult conditions in Houston, the team showed swagger and incredible skill. Even their last-ditch defending was done with style.
In the 2nd minute, a pass sequence that went Kim Little to Stephanie Cox to Sydney Leroux to Megan Rapinoe back to Little ended in a shot that was deflected right into Leroux's path for an easy finish and an early 1-0 lead. That move presaged the flair that the team showed all match in a confident performance at both the offensive and defensive ends.
In the 26th Fishlock measured a chip over the top of the Dash defense while Little ran onto it. The Houston defense collapsed but the Scot's first touch was ethereal and wiped both defenders out of the play, leaving her with a cool finish for the 2 goal lead. Houston's best chance to keep it a game was just a minute later off a corner, when an unmarked Becky Edwards headed the ball down hard at the goal line and Solo showed world class reflexes in reacting quickly enough to close her legs and trap the ball between her knees.
The drama level only rose from there. Just after half Rapinoe sent in a long ball from a tight angle that I'm sure she will swear to you was a shot though from that range it almost certainly had to be a cross. No matter as it went straight in to the side netting for a goal of the year nomination and a 3-0 lead. Houston pulled one back in the 55th (just after Kiersten Dallstream cleared a Dash shot off the line) when rookie Kealia Ohai, who'd been a bright spot all game, dribbled around the defense on the endline and deflected a shot off Solo and in by the near post. But they did little to threaten after that.
And the game was sealed in the 78th, when a Leroux backheel set Little up for a free run at the Houston box, where she beat Erin McLeod for the brace and a 4-1 lead.
The game included a number of milestones. Most importantly, it clinched the NWSL Shield for the team. It had looked like a foregone conclusion for much of the season given the massive lead the team had built in the standings, but still it's a special moment to actually earn the hardware — the first trophy for the young club. And the Shield means that the team has homefield advantage through the two playoff rounds. Not having to travel to New York or Kansas City or Portland for a playoff match will be a huge advantage for the team.
Also, Little's two goals give her 14, which is an NWSL record. The previous high was Lauren Holiday's 12 goals last season. Throw in her 5 assists (or more, depending on how the goals tonight are accounted) and the league MVP race looks over, even with 4 games left in the season. That would be another great honor for the team and a mark of their tremendous season, but it's clear this team has no intention of slowing down until they're holding the ultimate prize of an NWSL championship.