At the beginning of July, OL Reign sat in second to last place. This weekend, the team hosts the Washington Spirit in a playoff semifinal that will see the winner advance to the NWSL championship. You’d be forgiven if you thought this scenario was unlikely back in July. At the same time, fans only have to look to recent history to believe in the impossible.
Back in 2016, the Seattle Sounders were sitting in second to last place in the Western Conference at the end of July. They had won just one of their last six matches. After going through a coaching change and bringing in midfield maestro Nico Lodeiro and seeing the return of Roman Torres from injury, the team turned things around. The Sounders went 5-1-2 (W-L-D) to close out the regular season and secure a once-considered-unlikely spot in the 2016 MLS playoffs.
The Sounders went on to defeat Toronto FC in a dramatic penalty shootout — earning the club’s first MLS Cup trophy.
Well, that story certainly sounds familiar in the context of 2021.
At the beginning of July this year, OL Reign were in a similar position. They sat second to last in the league and had won just one of their last six matches. That’s when former head coach Farid Benstiti resigned and interim head coach Sam Laity stepped up to lead the team. The club was just starting to integrate new signings as well, including midfield maestro Dzsenifer Marozsan, Eugenie Le Sommer, Sarah Bouhaddi, and Alana Cook, who all joined the Reign after their season in France’s first division concluded.
Then, Laura Harvey took over as the club’s new (and returning) head coach. Rose Lavelle, Megan Rapinoe, Quinn, and Angelina returned from the Olympics. And things began to click. The team began to make a real run for it. They were scoring goals and having fun. OL Reign went 5-1-2 to close out the regular season and secure a once-considered-unlikely spot in the 2021 NWSL playoffs.
We don’t yet know if OL Reign will go on to find the same success as the Sounders did in 2016, but the storylines sure feel similar.
On top of the similar mid-season turnarounds, OL Reign are relying on the same mix of young, emerging talent and proven veterans and international stars that led the Sounders to their championship victory in 2016.
Young stars Cristian Roldan and Jordan Morris, voted MLS Rookie of the Year, started that 2016 playoff series alongside Osvaldo Alonso, who had been with the Sounders since their first MLS season. Newcomer Lodeiro was pulling all the strings in the midfield, a hard-working forward, Nelson Valdez, found his goal-scoring form in the playoffs, and veteran defenders like Chad Marshall, Tyrone Mears, and Torres were keeping the team in matches with an organized backline. Joevin Jones was a spark on the flank, providing defensive cover and a lot of danger with his pinpoint crosses.
When OL Reign faces off against the Washington Spirit this Sunday, they’ll rely on young stars like 2019 NWSL Rookie of the Year Bethany Balcer and Alana Cook. These players will be joined by Jess Fishlock, Megan Rapinoe, and Lauren Barnes, who have been with the Reign since their first NWSL season. Newcomers Rose Lavelle and Marozsán will be pulling all the strings in the midfield, while one of the hardest-working-forwards, Eugénie Le Sommer, will look to continue her recent goal-scoring form in the playoffs. Veteran defenders like Kristen McNabb and Barnes will look to keep the team in matches with an organized backline. Sofia Huerta will hope to be a spark on the flank, providing defensive cover and a lot of danger with her pinpoint crosses.
Many of us today look back on that 2016 Seattle Sounders season with so much pride and joy. After falling short in previous playoff runs, this Sounders squad — one that looked like they might fall dramatically short of expectations early in the season — did the impossible. This Sounders squad provided a comeback story for the ages in the most exciting, dramatic way possible. This Sounders squad made us believe.
OL Reign has a chance to bring that same energy to the 2021 playoffs. Just like the Sounders of before, the Reign have been close to an NWSL championship but have fallen short in prior years. And this year, the Reign were falling dramatically short of expectations, but the squad turned things around and are confidently stepping into the playoffs.
At Harvey’s press conference to officially mark her return to the club, she spoke of unfinished business — having been to the NWSL Championship game in back-to-back seasons (2014 & 2015) but being on the losing end to current U.S. National Team head coach Vlatko Andonovski in each meeting. As the saying in the beautiful game goes, “You could not write a better script than this,” when the impossible happens, the stage is very much set for this OL Reign squad to be the one that achieves something very special and very impossible if you were to think back to July.
Just like the Sounders did in 2016, this Reign squad has a chance to write an amazing end to their comeback story. That starts on Sunday when they face a red-hot Washington Spirit squad that hasn’t lost a game since August (although they did forfeit two matches in September). Fans have a chance to witness what should be an epic battle in person, with tickets still available for the noon PT game at Cheney Stadium.
It’s been a beautiful journey already, with a squad that is now more talented across the board than any Reign squad in history. Could this be the year they pull it all together? History has taught us to believe.