After a long, tumultuous week in which their former head coach resigned the day before the match at Houston Dash, OL Reign returned to the friendly confines of Cheney Stadium to take on Kansas City. With a full week of training where the theme was focusing on individual performances, OL Reign forward Bethany Balcer secured her first brace as a professional, as part of the team’s collective effort in a 2-0 victory over Kansas City.
It was shaping up to be a solid team performance from opening kick to full time, but a straight red card to goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi for denial of a goal-scoring opportunity saw OL Reign down to 10 players for roughly the final 20 minutes of the match. Despite the disadvantage, OL Reign were able to keep their composure and see out a much needed victory.
WHAT WORKED: REIGN SCORED GOALS! THEY HAPPENED!
Meme aside, it’s been a long time coming for OL Reign to find the back of the net, let alone to open the scoring. What a cathartic moment is must have been for the entire team to finally get one in. Forward Bethany Balcer pounced on a bad pass from Kansas City goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart and slotted home a dream of a goal in the third minute.
And she was not done! In the 29th minute, Balcer claimed a second after getting her head on this cross from Sofia Huerta. Tziarra King was clearly happy with the performance up to that point.
WHAT WORKED: EVERYONE PLAYED DEFENSE
This will stand out more when you watch the final 20 minutes of the match in which OL Reign were down to 10 players with their barely warmed-up backup goalkeeper in net. However in the whole picture of the match, OL Reign posted a solid performance defensively. Co-captain Lauren Barnes, finally back in the starting XI, undoubtedly provided stability to an otherwise young back line with defenders Sam Hiatt, Alana Cook, Celia. There clearly is an initiative to get OL Reign’s younger players minutes so we can see if they can hang in the NWSL, so the challenge for interim head coach Sam Laity is to get that balance of young, promising players paired with some veteran players like Barnes to learn from. Barnes played 82 minutes on Sunday before being part of basically a line change of substitutions to preserve the clean sheet. And even if the Reign had their full XI on the field, keeping the clean sheet today was a collective effort, from the back line, to the midfield, to the forwards applying pressure and coming back to help on set pieces.
Or as Jess Fishlock tweeted, “It’s togetherness & it’s fight.”
WELL THAT WAS WILDDDDD !?!?!?— Jessica Fishlock MBE (@JessFishlock) July 12, 2021
SOOO F****** proud of this group .. it’s togetherness & it’s fight.
Huge 3 points & hopefully the start of what we want.
Congrats Sam Laity on the Win. ❤️
It might have been gritty and not quite how they wanted to get the win, but doing that dirty work on Sunday might just be the catalyst of the Reign building some momentum to start climbing up the standings.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK: RED CARDS ARE BAD
After a lengthy delay by the officials to confer on the decision to issue the red card, plus a scramble to get backup goalkeeper Ella Dederick ready to enter the match and to adjust their formation, followed by fending off the dangerous ensuing Kansas City free kick, 10-player OL Reign were able to hold their ground, the two-goal lead, and secure the full three points in a win they very much needed, as there’s very little room for error if OL Reign want to start climbing up the league standings.
So was the straight red card for Bouhaddi because of a clear denial of a goal-scoring opportunity? Here was the official explanation from the referee:
I was the pool reporter for @OLReign's match today. Here is @PROreferees' response for Sarah Bouhaddi's red card:— Susie Rantz ️ (@SusieRants) July 12, 2021
In the 70th minute, OL Reign #12, Bouhaddi, denied an obvious goal scoring opportunity to the opponent by an offense punishable by a free kick.
Reign players and coach Laity remained neutral in offering any sort of commentary about referee Karen Abt’s officiating on Sunday night. While that’s a reasonable decision so as to avoid any potential fines from the league, there were other officiating decisions made (or not made), along with a surprising eight minutes of stoppage time to close the game that made for the full NWSL experience.
Obviously the red card means Bouhaddi will be unavailable for their next match. Fortunately with a squad of nearly 30 players, Laity will still have three goalkeepers to select from in Ella Dederick, Cosette Morche, and the recently arrived Phallon Tullis-Joyce.
“Number one, we scored first. Number two, we scored second.”
That’s how Laity answered when asked in his post-match press conference what impressed him the most about the team’s win on Sunday. After their loss at Houston Dash last week, Laity noted that the team that scores first has an 85% chance of getting the result. As chaotic and baffling as the final 20 minutes might have been, getting that early goal to set the tone was obviously an ideal start. Given how snakebitten OL Reign had been in recent weeks with their inability to finish chances, an early goal was surely a big confidence booster and testament to the work the team put in at training this week. Overall, Laity praised his team’s effort in being relentless on the attack, with Balcer leading the way with her brace.
OL Reign are back on the road for their next match, with a trip to the Windy City to visit the Chicago Red Stars next Sunday, July 18. Chicago head into that match fresh off a 2-1 victory over the Houston Dash in which they failed to register a single shot on goal (yes, you read that correctly.) Kickoff is scheduled for 3 PM PT. The match will be on Paramount+ for viewers in the US, while international viewers can watch on Twitch.