There wasn’t much time to sit back and enjoy the thrill of that historic debut and win at Lumen Field on Sunday, as OL Reign were back on the field for a midweek match against the Houston Dash in Houston, Texas. The roster-testing two-week road trip started on a great note as OL Reign scored the game’s only goal and it was another impressive display of team defense for Laura Harvey’s squad to secure the full three points on Wednesday night.
WHAT WORKED: BOATS WANTS THAT GOLDEN BOOT
Megan Rapinoe may have been scoring the goals as of late for OL Reign, but don’t forget that Bethany Balcer is very much in the mix for the NWSL Golden Boot race. She claimed her seventh goal of the season in the seventh minute from this second-chance tap-in after Houston’s Jane Campbell saved a strike from Jess Fishlock.
Balcer's a baller #HOUvRGN | https://t.co/bONPZnnmCJ | #NWSL21 pic.twitter.com/Iz5Vs0gYw6— National Women’s Soccer League (@NWSL) September 2, 2021
WHAT WORKED: STIFLING HOUSTON’S TRANSITION
As Susie pointed out in the match preview, Houston likes to hit on the counterattack. In the previous meeting at Cheney Stadium, Houston had no chance to do that as right from the rip, OL Reign dropped goal after goal on them. Tonight it was the same team defense that was stellar in the second half of Sunday’s win over the Portland Thorns which smothered Houston to where they couldn’t find openings to spring their signature counterattack.
And that team defense was certainly tested under the notorious Texas heat and humidity. Fishlock told it like it is on the broadcast’s post-match interview with Marisa Pilla, noting that the elements made it tough on everyone on the field, but the team held together and grinded out to get the win. Sometimes you can win pretty and in front of 27,000 people, other times you have to win gritty in a literal sauna.
WHAT WORKED: THIS TEAM DEFENSE, FOLKS
We’ve seen Sofia Huerta at right back before in her NWSL career, but this time it feels different and it just looks a lot more effective than the previous iterations. Huerta in her post-match press conference credits it to the coaching staff having a plan and instilling confidence in her that she can play that position. And she trusts them based on that intel, as well as the support of her teammates that are out on the field with her.
Another standout in OL Reign’s defense tonight and even going back to Sunday’s victory over Portland was Quinn. Having a commanding presence in front of the centerbacks is just something Reign squads haven’t had since the days of Keelin Winters. Quinn’s presence was Christine Sinclair’s kryptonite on Sunday and they put in another solid 90-minute performance tonight which freed up Fishlock and Rose Lavelle to rule the midfield as both attackers and defenders, safe in the knowledge that they have another stalwart line of defense. And keep in mind, Quinn was at the Olympics, winning a gold medal, so their reintegration into this squad is an ongoing process which should continue to improve with each additional training and match.
OL Reign can score goals — we’ve seen ample evidence of this — but just as important to this climb up the standings is what they are doing on the defensive side of the ball. The times they were able to intercept the ball from Houston by just being in their passing lanes shows how cohesive this unit is becoming.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK: NO SECOND GOAL
One could lament and be nitpicky at the lack of a second goal to put the game to bed, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. Bethany Balcer had a chance for a second goal on the night. Eugénie Le Sommer took Megan Oyster on a ride in the second half and had some cracks at Houston’s goal. Dani Weatherholt almost wrote the final note on the game in stoppage time with a curling effort. However those didn’t feel like missed chances that they’ll be stewing over. That’s in no small part because they have to quickly set their sights on Racing Louisville this Saturday. With the form OL Reign are on, it just feels like if they don’t beat the goalkeeper one time, they’re going to get another chance, and another. The attacking talent this team has is really an embarrassment of riches now that we’re seeing them gel together. So sure, they didn’t score a second or a third goal tonight, but they came pretty close and it didn’t affect them in remaining consistent on defense.
At the rate they are going when it’s the home stretch of the NWSL, finding “what didn’t work” topics might be few and far between.
“We didn’t play our best, but we knew what we had to do to get it done.”
This win was one of those ones where OL Reign just had to grind it out. Huerta and Balcer in their post-match press conference talked about that, with Balcer saying, “Sometimes you just throw tactics aside and you just got to battle and work really hard for each other.”
A hot, muggy Wednesday night in Houston is a far cry from the spectacle and the big fight feel of Sunday against your rival, but even with the short turnaround, OL Reign were able to work as a unit and it’s not hard to think that is what the team is most proud of with tonight’s win and just how they’ve been on the run since July.
“He steadied the ship.”
During their press conference, Huerta and Balcer credited the coaching staff for the run the team is on. The departure of Farid Benstiti in July was a shock to everyone, but when assistant coach Sam Laity stepped up to prevent the team and their season going into full disarray, and most importantly restoring confidence in each player, they won four straight matches. When Laura Harvey made her return official in August, there was that bump in the road of losing at Kansas City. Since then, OL Reign have been consistently collecting three points. Tonight, Harvey said all the credit goes to Laity for making her return to the NWSL “way easier for me to come in and hit the ground running.”
Wherever OL Reign finish in the standings at the end of the regular season, and should they see some post-season play, we just may look back at the very first time this team has had to do a mid-season coaching change, and how they handled it under the temporary stewardship of Sam Laity, as the pivotal moment.
The win is exactly how OL Reign wanted to start this two-week road trip. A nine-point week which could solidify their claim on a playoff spot is very much possible after the win at Houston. The win puts OL Reign at 28 points, tied with North Carolina Courage. Next up for OL Reign is a trip to Louisville, Kentucky where they will visit Lynn Family Stadium for the first time and meet Racing Louisville FC. That match is scheduled for Saturday, September 4 with a 4:30 PM PT kickoff, and will be broadcast on Paramount+ if you’re in the US and Twitch if you’re an international viewer.