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Sam Laity becomes Houston Dash head coach

Laity has been a Reign assistant coach since 2013.

MikeRussellFoto / Sounder at Heart

After 10 years as an assistant coach with OL Reign, Sam Laity has finally been given a head coaching role in the NWSL. On Wednesday, the Reign original was named head coach for the Houston Dash.

OL Reign had already begun looking for an assistant coach prior to Laity’s departure, although Ride of the Valkyries confirmed that was to add a second assistant coach under head coach Laura Harvey instead of having just one.

On Twitter, Harvey called Laity “the man, the myth, the legend,” and noted she’ll spend the day sharing stories about the impact he’s had on her and OL Reign. “Our stories from the past 10 years will live on. I am so grateful for everything you have done for me, this club, and everyone who has been a part of OL Reign.”

The head coach position only opened up recently in Houston. After head coach James Clarkson was suspended pending the results of a league investigation into potential misconduct, Houston brought Juan Carlos Amorós on this summer as interim head coach. Thanks to a great run under Amorós, the Dash qualified for the playoffs for the first time — ultimately losing to the Kansas City Current in the first round. Instead of staying with Houston, however, Amorós was hired as NJ/NY Gotham FC’s head coach in November.

“As we went through the interview process, Sam stood out as the ideal candidate to lead the team,” Dash general manager Alex Singer said in a club release. “He is a players’ coach with the respect and trust of players, staff, and stakeholders across our league and sport. His deep knowledge of this league is an invaluable asset but most importantly, his values align with the culture we want to build and the competitive product we want to see on the field.”

While Laity’s move to Houston might be shocking to many OL Reign fans, what’s even more shocking is just how long it took an NWSL club to bring Laity on board.

Once called “the best-kept secret in coaching” by former Canadian international and Reign player Kaylyn Kyle, Laity has more than proven himself in what is arguably the most competitive women’s professional league in the world. With Laity as a stable connector across three different head coaches, OL Reign won three NWSL Shields, advanced to two championship games, and qualified for the playoffs in six of the league’s nine seasons.

It is fitting that Laity ended up with the Dash, as it was at PNC Stadium in Houston on July 2, 2021, that Laity made his first appearance as interim head coach for OL Reign. That last-minute appointment came after Farid Benstiti was asked to resign a day earlier due to inappropriate comments he made to the team about diet and nutrition. While Laity lost that initial match, he went on to have a highly successful run as interim head coach.

During Laity’s six matches in charge over the summer of 2021, the team delivered 12 points (2 points per game), a huge turnaround from the seven points they collected in their first seven matches. That includes a 5-1 win over the Dash.

Laity won yet another game as interim head coach in 2022, a thrilling 2-1 road win over the North Carolina Courage that helped spark OL Reign’s late surge for the NWSL Shield. Head coach Laura Harvey was unavailable for that match, as she was stuck at home with a positive Covid-19 diagnosis.

Over his 10-year period with OL Reign, Laity’s assistant coach role has evolved along with the club. Early on, Harvey had Laity do a lot more full-team coaching. He was also in charge of managing the team’s physical load and utilization in the Reign’s early years. Vlatko Andonovski, who took over as head coach in 2018, managed more of the day-to-day training sessions and split players and coaches into groups. During his tenure Laity worked primarily with the forwards — helping develop players like NWSL Rookie of the Year Bethany Balcer. Under Benstiti, Laity’s role was kind of a mix between the two styles.

When Laity was named interim head coach in 2021, he had an opportunity to show the world what he could bring as a head coach.

“A quote that I’ve used on a regular basis to talk about myself is this one by Oscar Wilde: ‘Be yourself; everyone else is already taken,’” Laity said in an exclusive interview with Ride of the Valkyries earlier this year. “When I had that period as interim head coach, it was an opportunity really to present myself and who I felt I would be as a head coach. Part of that identity of what you’d seen over those games was a little bit of the others — a little bit of Laura, a little bit of Vlatko, a little bit of Farid — and obviously a big part of myself.”

Inspired by Laity, the team became more aggressive with and without the ball. He also focused on helping the team believe in themselves again, something he felt the team had lost in the previous months. Finally, Laity balanced clear direction with a belief in the players to solve problems and figure things out on their own in a match.

“It’s easy to perform when you have a lot of direction, and he gave us that,” Sofia Huerta said after a match in 2021 where Laity was in charge.

Anyone who has seen Laity run training sessions for OL Reign could point to a similar notion. He always makes sure players understand the goal of a specific training exercise. If someone doesn’t understand the assignment, he not only helps the player but patiently made sure the entire team hears his answers to ensure everyone is clear on what they are being asked to do. He is vocal in his support during training sessions as well, while also being clear — but not critical — when players needed to correct certain actions.

That clear direction and support have translated into strong performances on the field. Forward Bethany Balcer, who scored five goals in the six games Laity served as head coach, talked about how much Laity’s trust in her and the players impacted their play.

“Sam gave us a lot of freedom to do what we do best. He really opened it up to us to let us figure things out,” Balcer said. “He was really good about guiding us and giving this team our identity back.”

What always stood out to me about Laity, even during that short interim head coaching stint, is that he seems to have a great understanding of what a team needs to make themselves whole. Laity was clear in his conversation with Ride of the Valkyries that he didn’t make big changes during his interim head coaching stint. Instead, the changes he made seemed to help the team work better as a collective. Dani Weatherholt settled into a starting role in the midfield under Laity, and her tireless work rate and selflessness allowed Jess Fishlock and Dzsenifer Marozsán to shine. In their four wins under Laity, Marozsán had 12 key passes and Fishlock had two goals and three assists.

Despite all this and how much support Laity always had from Reign players, no other team gave him a chance until now to be a head coach in this league. While sources have confirmed to Ride of the Valkyries that Laity expressed interest in Racing Louisville’s head coach spot when the expansion club was first looking, they instead chose to hire Christy Holly — despite obvious controversy attached to him when he left Sky Blue FC in 2017.

Laity currently holds a UEFA “B” License and an NSCAA (now United Soccer Coaches) Master Coach Diploma. He is enrolled in the US Soccer Federation’s “A“ senior licensing course.

The Sideways Thumbs Up

For OL Reign fans who didn’t know, Laity was the inspiration behind Megan Rapinoe’s Sideways Thumbs Up celebration. You can also find the Sideway Thumbs Up in starting lineup photos, especially from Reign original players like Rapinoe, Lauren Barnes, and Jess Fishlock.

Former Reign player Dani Foxhoven shared the origins on an Equal Time Soccer podcast earlier this year. It happened during a team trip to Niagara Falls during a Western New York Flash road match. The team snuck beyond the barriers and all got too close to the waterfall, and they look up to see Laity standing on a rock holding up a sideways thumbs up “right before pretty much all of us got arrested,” Foxhoven notes (starts at 15:20 in the below video).

Ride of the Valkyries photographer Mike Russell captured the full team doing a Sideways Thumbs Up in their starting lineup photo before the 2015 NWSL championship match.

Comments from current and former OL Reign coaches, staff, players

Head Coach Laura Harvey

Eric Rossitch, Head Coach at OL Reign Academy and Video Analyst

Stephen Thurlby, Director of Ticketing and Retail

Nicole Surdyka, former Rehab Director, OL Reign

OL Reign posted a thank you post on their website shortly after Laity was officially announced at a press conference in Houston this morning. Here are some quotes from the post.

Jess Fishlock, OL Reign midfielder
“He’s always been a huge part of the team, from 2013 until now. I think that was a huge reason why his time as head coach was super successful. He brought us all into focus. We will all look back on that time and never have the words to really express his importance to us. Sam’s time as interim head coach was and will be a vital part to this team and organization’s success. He has a deep-rooted history with this club that allowed him to be the perfect person to re-direct the club on the path we wanted to be on.”

Nick Perera, OL Reign General Manager
“Sam has been a staple for this club long before I arrived, and he helped shape a culture of excellence here from the very beginning. It’s exceedingly clear how valuable he was to this club and each player that walked through our doors. He was strongly appreciated. We are very proud of him and we’re excited for him to embrace this new chapter. His impact at OL Reign will always be a part of our successful history.”

Lauren Barnes, OL Reign defender & captain

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