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OL Reign “deserves this” — and more

Reflecting on the Reign’s regular-season home opener at Lumen Field.

MikeRussellFoto / Sounder at Heart

Just before kickoff in OL Reign’s regular-season home opener on May 8, the Royal Guard supporters group unveiled their first tifo at Lumen Field — a beautiful painting of the three “OG” Reign Players, Lauren Barnes, Jess Fishlock, and Megan Rapinoe, standing in front of the arches of Lumen Field along with the words, “We Deserve This.”

Those are the words Rapinoe said after last year’s doubleheader, the Reign’s first-ever match at Lumen Field that set an NWSL attendance record. Pinoe is absolutely right. While Starfire, Memorial, and Cheney Stadiums all served them well — and Tacoma showed up for the Reign the last few years — these world-class players deserve a world-class stadium that matches their talents.

“It was really cool seeing that go up,” Barnes said after the match. “There’s a lot of history behind us three, a foundation that we’ve built here. So seeing that up ... is pretty cool, and I think it just goes to show — the fans and my teammates even saying stuff about it — we have a special group here and we have had that for 10 years. I’m so happy that the club is where it’s at right now, and you know they can only move higher and forward from here, which is really awesome for the next generations to come.”

Comfortable locker rooms. A quality playing surface. A stadium that feels like a place fans can come to drink a beer, settle in, and watch some soccer with friends. A stadium that the Reign can call home for a long time, put on a good show, and spread their wings.

“We deserve this.”

OL Reign are now 2-0-2 at Lumen Field, as they hosted three Challenge Cup matches before the regular-season home opener. They’ve got a real opportunity to make Lumen Field a fortress where they reign supreme all year long. That all starts now.

While attendance was lighter than they’d hoped on opening day — just 4,396 — there were a number of factors working against the Reign this week. They didn’t know until Wednesday, May 1, whether they’d be hosting the Challenge Cup final or regular-season opener, making it hard to sell tickets for either potential match. They were competing with Mothers Day. And they followed a record-setting Concacaf Champions League final, with many of the 68,000 who attended staying home after that match due to COVID exposures.

It should also be noted that this was still one of the most-attended regular-season home openers for OL Reign, as attendance often starts low and ramps up throughout the year. And the atmosphere is already louder and bolder than in prior seasons.

At the same time, I couldn’t help but look at the attendance numbers in Los Angeles — home to expansion club Angel City — and feel a little envy. After their home opener drew a sellout crowd of 22,000, Angel City again had 17,510 last weekend. The Washington Spirit also saw more than 10,000 in their home opener against the Reign last weekend. The Portland Thorns, even with fan protests, continue to see more than 13,000 at home.

Women’s soccer is at a turning point, and the NWSL is leading the way to a brighter history. So while it is easy to understand last weekend’s low numbers, there are also so many who are still missing out on the opportunity to give every Reign player — and especially Barnes, Fishlock, and Pinoe — the atmosphere at Lumen Field that they truly deserve. An atmosphere that includes a full supporters section, chants that echo throughout the stadium, and the full roar of the crowd when they score.

Yes, OL Reign deserves to be playing at Lumen Field. But they also deserve so much more.

The reality is these players fight to overcome so many challenges each day beyond trying to get three points on matchday. They have seen incremental gains in pay over the years, but the minimum salary is still $35,000. Mainstream media barely pays them any attention, with local TV sports segments often forgetting to even reference them. These athletes who have won World Cups and are among the best in the world are still just fighting to be noticed.

On top of that, despite earning the top seed after group-stage play, OL Reign lost the chance to host the Challenge Cup semifinal because the league was not on top of scheduling and wouldn’t agree to any of the club’s proposed alternatives. They were forced to play three matches last week because the NWSL made the regular season and Challenge Cup overlap. And they missed out on a chance to host the Challenge Cup final — which comes with a $10,000 prize per player if you win — due to a missed call by the referee.

Their home opener on Sunday only added to their frustration. The Reign were clearly tired after a grueling week of travel and tough matches. But they came from behind and even went up 2-1 in the first half, only to see Racing Louisville equalize off a set piece where it was hard to tell whether the ball crossed the line before Bethany Balcer cleared it or not. There were other calls or non-calls — like a potential red card after Balcer was pulled down by goalkeeper Katie Lund — that impacted the match as well.

Despite all that, these players showed their resilience by earning a point and they demonstrated just how special the group is this year. Amidst some of the controversy from the match, Tziarra King scored a brace — becoming the 11th player to score for the Reign after less than two months of play.

“These are moments in the games that happen, and you’re going to get good calls, bad calls. I think the biggest thing that we have to do is respond, and we did that,” Barnes said after the match. “We’ve had a few unfortunate run of events lately, but I can’t knock this group’s energy and what they’ve brought regardless of what’s thrown at us. I think that’s the most important thing we take away.”

It should be noted: even after a successful Challenge Cup, this team still has so much room to grow. Their play is still far from perfect, with a number of half-chances missed in their home opener and some nervy passing to start the match. But as King reminded everyone attending the press conference after the match, there’s still a full season ahead for this team. So, what do they need to clean up as the season progresses? Head coach Laura Harvey wants them to be smarter in their 18-yard box. Here’s what she had to say when asked whether some of those decisions were due to fatigue after a tough week:

I don’t think it was mental fatigue, because I think Wednesday (the Challenge Cup semifinal) was the same. I think we’ve had this issue a lot throughout this season so far — when we’re in and around the areas where we need to show some real quality, there’s been some games where we just haven’t done that enough. And you know, when we do, we’re a threat. We always believe that we’re going to get into these positions, but now we’ve just got to really focus in on that little bit of quality in and around the box, The decisions we make, the execution of it, all those little bits, I think it will come with time, as long as we commit to learning from it and getting better from it.

Knowing this group of players, they will fight like hell to make the improvements Harvey wants from them — putting on a great show for their fans in the process. It’s up to all of us to fight like hell in return to give them an atmosphere at Lumen Field they deserve all year long. Count me as someone optimistic this region can show up.

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