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OL Reign showed tenacity in pursuit of the NWSL Shield

This year’s Shield race was a marathon, rather than a sprint to the top of the table.

MikeRussellFoto / Sounder at Heart

This year’s OL Reign team was different from the ones that won NWSL Shields in 2014 and 2015. The two prior seasons where the Reign won, they did so in absolutely dominant fashion. In 2014 they sat top of the table for the entire season, winning their opening game over Boston 3-0 and never looking back as they won the Shield by 13 points.

In 2015 they started slightly cooler with some early losses and draws, slipping as far as 5th place after their sixth game before finding their form and quickly sprinting up the standings. They bounced between first and second for six weeks and then comfortably settled permanently into first place with seven games to go, ultimately clearing the top of the table by 10 points.

Similar to 2015, this year’s squad started cold, but unlike those earlier seasons this Reign roster wasn’t head and shoulders more talented than everyone else. To earn their third-ever Shield they had to work long and hard to pursue formidable opposition. As the chart below shows, they remained dogged in their chase, even when it felt as if it would ultimately be futile, keeping themselves in position to seize any opportunity presented to them by other teams stumbling in the final weeks of the season.

Let’s look back at how the season played out for OL Reign, and the results that ultimately got them that third piece of silverware.

Weeks 1-4

After a wildly successful Challenge Cup group stage, the Reign struggled early in the regular season. They opened on May 1 with a 2-1 loss at Washington, which put them in 8th place on tiebreakers. During Week 2 they first suffered a heart-wrenching midweek Challenge Cup semifinal loss in penalties to that same Spirit side, then hosted Racing Louisville in their regular-season home opener, a match which they drew, 2-2. That one point from two matches dropped them to 10th place, where they stayed after Week 3 following yet another draw, this time a gritty 0-0 game at Portland. That was the low point of the season for the club – the following week they hosted the Spirit and once again drew 0-0, but the point was enough for them to move up one spot in the standings.

Weeks 5-8

Week 5 of the season saw OL Reign’s fortunes change – this was their first two-match week, and they claimed two big 1-0 wins at home, first in a midweek matchup against Kansas City Current, followed four days later by a win over San Diego Wave. Those six points catapulted them to third place in the standings, although their stay near the top was brief and they wouldn’t climb as high again until the final two weeks of the season.

Week 6 featured a road loss to Chicago, 1-0. The table at the end of this week was a hint of things to come, with four teams including OL Reign tied on 9 points and the Reign sitting in 6th place after tiebreakers, behind Portland and Gotham but ahead of Angel City.

Week 7 saw the Reign visit the first-place team, San Diego; they returned home with a 1-1 draw. The point kept them in the 6th and final playoff spot. Week 8 welcomed the other California team to Lumen Field, where the Reign dispatched Angel City, 1-0, improving their record to 3-2-4 / 13 points, which moved them up one spot to 5th place.

Weeks 9-12

The middle of the season started with another significant Reign win in Week 9, defeating the North Carolina Courage at home, 2-0, which took them to 4th in the standings. Week 10 welcomed a record crowd to witness a 2-2 draw against the Portland Thorns, keeping the Reign in 4th with 17 points. But in Week 11 they suffered a disappointing 1-0 road loss to Kansas City, which allowed two teams to leapfrog OL Reign, who once again fell to the 6th spot.

The back-half of OL Reign’s season started with a last-minute 3-2 win over Angel City FC at the Banc. That win brought them to 5th place with 20 points, but with San Diego at the top of the table with 25 points it was beginning to feel as if the Shield was slipping out of reach even with a game in hand on the leaders.

Weeks 13-16

The second of OL Reign’s three two-match weeks was a disappointment. It started with a mid-week 1-1 draw at Racing Louisville, followed by a 2-1 loss at home to Houston, the team’s only loss to date at Lumen Field. Those results meant the Reign dropped back down to 6th in the standings, while regional rivals Portland overtook San Diego for first with one fewer game played. Head coach Laura Harvey later indicated that in the aftermath of the Dash game, the team had a reckoning about what they hoped to accomplish this season and how they needed to play in order to succeed. Notably, that was the last time OL Reign lost a match.

Week 14 saw the club exorcise many of the finishing demons that had haunted them earlier in the season. They easily dispatched Gotham, 4-1, taking them to a record of 6-4-6 and up to 5th place, although the Thorns also won and maintained their four-point cushion over the Reign with a game in hand.

OL Reign had Week 15 off from league play, instead participating in and winning The Women’s Cup tournament in Louisville. The Thorns similarly participated in the Women’s International Challenge Cup at home, albeit with far less success. There were only a few league matches this week, so despite being off, the two Cascadia teams held their spots in the league standings during their break.

Despite not losing another game all season, OL Reign were stuck in 5th for a while. They improved their record to 7-4-6 after defeating Orlando, 2-1 in Week 16, but aside from Portland, the teams above them kept pace. At the top of the table, the Thorns lost two games in the span of a week to slip to 4th, allowing San Diego to reclaim the lead with 31 points.

Week 17

OL Reign had an opportunity to move up the standings this week, but they had to settle for a 2-2 home draw to Chicago, leaving them in 5th place with 28 points through 18 games played. In the Shield race, it was San Diego’s turn to falter, as both Kansas City and Portland jumped them. The Current ended the week at the top of the Shield standings with 32 points through 18 games, the only time all season they were in that position.

Weeks 18-19

The closing weeks of the season were a trial by fire for OL Reign – a three-game, 6,100-mile road trip over eight days with two of their opponents in playoff contention. The opening game of the trip was against North Carolina, a team the Reign had never defeated on the road. They dispatched the Courage, 2-1, but remained stuck in 5th place with an 8-4-7 record. Portland drew, leaving them one point ahead of the Reign on the same number of games played, while the top three teams each had played one extra game, with San Diego in the top spot with 34 points.

It was after this game that assistant coach Sam Laity reminded everyone that the Reign have lofty aspirations, and just making the playoffs isn’t enough — they wanted that Shield.

The Thorns and Reign both played their games in hand during midweek of Week 19. OL Reign traveled to Gotham and had a more challenging game than their first meeting against the New Jersey side, eventually winning 1-0 to lift them to 34 points, equal with San Diego but behind them on goal differential. Portland, meanwhile, dismantled Louisville to reclaim first place with 35 points, putting the Reign in third. Three days later, OL Reign visited Houston and won 2-0, propelling them briefly to first place with 37 points, with San Diego and Portland still to play their games the following day. With the Red Stars desperately needing points against the Thorns to keep their playoff hopes alive, there was hope in Seattle that fortune might favor them, but they only got part of their wish. The Wave drew lowly Orlando, 2-2, but Portland crushed Chicago, 3-0, leaving the Reign in second at the end of the week. They were one point behind the Thorns with one match to go, but now in control of their own destiny for a first-round playoff bye.

Week 20

The final weekend of the regular season set up nicely for OL Reign. All of the teams who they were still battling for playoff positioning played their games before the Reign kicked off on Saturday evening against Orlando. The Reign would know what result was needed to ensure a top-two finish, and more importantly, they would know if there was still a chance to finish top of the table after Portland played at last-place Gotham earlier in the day. Shockingly, Gotham took an early lead in that game, only to surrender two late first-half goals and an early second-half goal to go down 3-1. But Gotham weren’t done yet, scoring two unanswered to claim a 3-3 tie and their first point since early July. The Shield was now OL Reign’s for the taking, and they did not falter, scoring early and often to defeat Orlando, 3-0, in front of a new record crowd.

In total, OL Reign held first place for less than 48 hours over the entire NWSL season – for approximately 19 hours from Sept. 24-25 before Portland defeated Chicago in Week 19, and again from the evening of Oct. 1 until the season concluded the next afternoon. But they held it for the hours that mattered most, and according to head coach Laura Harvey, that tenacity and late-season momentum might just be what the team needs to get over that final hump in the NWSL playoffs.

“[I] said this to the group that we’ve been the team that’s won the league easily, you know, sat at the top. It’s not been a debate if we were gonna win it or not, and then we could never get over that hump of getting the actual championship,” Harvey told the media after their win over Orlando to secure the Shield. “And if you look back, the team that’s always won it in those seasons, and even last year... they’re the in-form team. I don’t think that’s a guarantee that you’re going to go into the playoffs and do well, but I think it can help you.”

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