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Sam Laity no longer is OL Reign’s best-kept secret

Laity shined when he stepped into the spotlight as interim head coach last year.

Chicago Red Stars v OL Reign Photo by Jane Gershovich/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Sharing many similarities with Seattle, Plymouth is a port city in the southwest corner of England that’s home to an aquarium, fish market, several marinas, and a good amount of rainfall. It was a fitting place for Sam Laity to begin a coaching journey that would eventually lead him across the world to Seattle and OL Reign, where he enters his 10th year as the club’s assistant coach.

Coaching soccer appealed to Laity while he was still a teenager attending university in Plymouth. One of his professors happened to be a regional director with the English FA, and he encouraged Laity and others in his class to get their coaching licenses from as young of an age as possible. Laity, who played football growing up and at university, was one of about a dozen students who took their professor’s advice.

“I think I did my UEFA C license at 20, maybe 21 or 22. And from that point on, it just sort of — as these things tend to do — it sort of spiraled,” Laity shared in a conversation with Ride of the Valkyries.

In what would become a fortuitous start, Laity’s coaching journey began with outreach programs for the Devon FA to girls' schools. He was part of the first group that went into inner-city schools to provide coaching lessons for female athletes. At the time, it wasn’t a very popular program. “Female players were stigmatized at that point, and we’d go to a school and there would be one, maybe two girls there that would turn up for training,” Laity said.

Even if the program was a little ahead of its time for the region, it was enough to spark his interest in coaching. While still at university, Laity began coming to the United States in the summer to run soccer camps for eight to 12 weeks. That eventually turned into a year-round job after finishing college. He took a regional director role on the East Coast before moving to Seattle, where he served as director for the Pacific Northwest Soccer Club and spent about seven years leading coach education and licensing for the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA), now United Soccer Coaches.

After completing his NSCAA Master Coach Diploma, a friend told Laity that his friend’s sister — Laura Harvey — had gotten a job as head coach of the newly formed Seattle Reign FC and was looking for an assistant. The two hadn’t met before, but thanks to that friend-of-a-friend connection, Laity found himself at the Reign working alongside Harvey. Ten years later, he’s now the longest-tenured club employee and someone whose name players associate with the Reign as much as Harvey or founders Bill and Teresa Predmore.

According to the TTI Soccer blog, former Canadian national team player and Seattle Reign midfielder, Kaylyn Kyle, once called Laity “the best-kept secret in coaching.” Laity joked that was because he intentionally tried to stay out of the spotlight, but the secret’s out now after a successful run as interim head coach for the Reign in 2021 — one that put the club on a path to a historic turnaround and the NWSL semifinals.

Ride of the Valkyries sat down with Laity to learn more about his journey with the Reign and understand his coaching philosophy.

Early Days with the Reign

While we don’t talk about the first Reign season — just as we don’t talk about Bruno — Laity opened up about the rollercoaster that was the inaugural year for the league and the club.

“I think the league was formed in about four months, and I probably joined in the last month of that. It was very eye-opening — you know, every single team was new, the travel, the conditions that we operated under. The number of staff, I think at that point, was myself, Laura, and a goalkeeper coach and a physical trainer and then a team admin,” Laity shared.

It wasn’t just the resources and the enormous amount of travel in the first year that shocked Laity, however. The play on the field was more intense than he and Harvey imagined.

“Our first-ever real game in the league was in Chicago at Benedictine University, and to this day, I don’t think I’ve ever seen as competitive a game in my life. I remember 10 or 15 minutes into the game, Laura and I looked at each other and sort of blew our cheeks — you know, as if to say, ‘What is happening here? This is outrageous.’”

He and Harvey spent that year working to establish a team culture and identity, and they were successful in doing those things, even if the results didn’t fall right away. What they learned in that inaugural season set them up for what would become a rather successful next few years.

“You learn a lot through success, you learn a lot through failure, and actually you learn an enormous amount about yourself when you go through a period of what we went through.”

It was clear to both of them that they didn’t quite have the pieces that were necessary to get results in this league, so they spent the offseason bringing in talent they thought could take them to the next level. Talent like Kim Little, Naho Kawasumi, Sydney Leroux, Bev Yanez, and Kendall Fletcher. Talent that led the team to win the NWSL Shield and earn a trip to the championship in back-to-back seasons.

From assistant to interim head coach

While Laity started as an assistant coach under Harvey, he has since had the opportunity to serve in that role under two other head coaches: Vlatko Andonovski and Farid Benstiti. During each transition, Laity was the conduit helping behind-the-scenes by managing trades, supporting the draft, and working to maintain the club’s culture. He also coached in the Reign Academy until 2019. He has been the glue that tied all the Reign’s seasons together, but as he shared on the Master Coach Online podcast, his role shifted under each head coach.

In his first few years with the Reign, because of the club’s sparse technical staff, Laity did a lot more full-team coaching and was also in charge of managing the team’s physical load and utilization. Andonovski, on the other hand, was much more hands-on and split players and coaches into groups. Laity worked primarily with the forwards — helping develop players like NWSL Rookie of the Year Bethany Balcer. Under Benstiti, it was kind of a mix between the two other head coaches’ styles when it came to Laity’s role.

When Laity stepped in as interim head coach after Benstiti was asked to resign, he saw it as an opportunity to solidify his own identity as a coach.

“A quote that I’ve used on a regular basis to talk about myself is this one by Oscar Wilde: ‘Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.’ When I had that period as interim head coach, it was an opportunity really to present myself and who I felt I would be as a head coach. Part of that identity of what you’d seen over those games was a little bit of the others — a little bit of Laura, a little bit of Vlatko, a little bit of Farid — and obviously a big part of myself.”

That version — that Sam Laity coaching style, which players say is filled with daily motivational quotes — proved to be highly successful on the field. During Laity’s six matches as interim head coach, the team delivered 12 points (2 points per game), a huge turnaround from the seven points they collected in their first seven matches. So how did he do it? Laity likened his role at the time to that of a mechanic.

“All I did was bring the car in for some maintenance. You know, pump the tires up, change the oil, check the filter, replace the fluid, and put the car back on the road.”

If that feels a bit humble and simplistic, that’s kind of Laity’s style. But he also expanded on his approach during this time. First on his list was to get the team organized. “I felt that we needed to be a little bit more aggressive with and without the ball, especially in this league. It was also about giving the team a structure that gives players the opportunity to go out there and express themselves in the best possible format.”

The players noticed, and the results quickly shifted in the Reign’s favor. In post-match press conferences over the summer, players continued to praise Laity for giving them clear direction and organized instruction. “It’s easy to perform when you have a lot of direction, and he gave us that,” said Sofia Huerta.

The second priority for Laity was to get the team and players to believe in themselves again.

“I think that the belief aspect was something that was missing. I don’t think that the players really believed in themself or in the team. You know, especially in this league, nobody can guarantee that you’re gonna get a result, but all I said to the players from day one of the period that I took over the team was, ‘Look, I’m gonna give everything I’ve got to you. The staff are gonna give everything they have for you. All we ask is that you give everything. And my only guarantee will be that when I’m finished — whether that’s in two games, five games, eight games, or 15 games — I will guarantee you that you would’ve improved.’”

One of the players who flourished most during this time was forward Bethany Balcer, who scored five goals in the six games Laity served as head coach. For Balcer, it was not just Laity’s belief in his players but his trust that gave her so much success.

“Sam gave us a lot of freedom to do what we do best. He really opened it up to us to let us figure things out,” Balcer said. “He was really good about guiding us and giving this team our identity back.”

Making the tough choices

While Laity continues to be 100% committed to OL Reign, the experience did show him that he’s prepared to be a head coach someday in the future. “I’ve always felt that I could do a good job in the league as head coach, but nobody really knows, right? Nobody really knows until you are put in that position. Coaching at this level — obviously, it’s about the Xs and the Os and tactics, but for me, it’s about leadership. It’s about motivation.”

It’s also about making tough choices about what you think is best for the team. Laity had to make one of those decisions last summer. Costa Rican midfielder Shirley Cruz is a legend of the game. She had played under Benstiti previously at PSG and was earning a lot of playing time under him with the Reign. When Laity stepped in, he felt like the team needed to go in a slightly different direction to sort of change the course. So he had to sit Cruz down and tell her that her starting role would diminish.

Laity credited the midfielder for being such an incredible professional and handling the conversation with grace, but he comes back to that moment when he thinks about what it takes to be a successful head coach. “You never really know unless you are in that position, having those conversations with players like that, expressing to them that you admire them, that they are still world-class players, but you just want to go in a slightly different direction for a period of time. You don’t really know how you are going to respond to those situations unless you are put in that.”

It was this kind of leadership that Harvey has seen all along in Laity that gave her so much faith in the team while she was with the U.S. Women’s National Team for the Olympics last summer. Serving as an assistant coach for the national team, Harvey would have to wait nearly a month between her unveiling and her first game back coaching the Reign.

“I know Sam. I know what he can do. I know all of these fantastic traits that he brings. Being in this position where I have four games before I can get back on the ground and get into it, there’s only one person I’d want to make sure was around the team at that moment and it’s Sam,” Harvey said in the press conference introducing her as the returning Reign head coach.

Part of knowing Sam for a long time also means the two have a relationship full of laughs and banter, and Laity was quick to point to what he believes is one of Laura Harvey’s few flaws: her newfound love of country music. A music lover himself, he conceded that Adele — another of Harvey’s favorites — was great, but country was one step too far.

“She does have some good taste in music, but she also has some very poor ones in my opinion. One of the things that the pandemic did for Laura was it introduced her to country music and she fell in love with it. So that’s where we differ.”

A life-changing experience

When asked about what OL Reign meant to him, Laity praised the Predmores for giving him and women’s soccer the opportunity to blossom. This club has been his life for more than a decade now, and Bill and Teresa made that possible.

“They have changed my life. I’ve been part of the Predmore family and vice versa for nearly a quarter of my life now, which is incredible. What they’ve done for the city of Seattle and Tacoma and what they’ve also done for the sport of women’s soccer and youth soccer in Seattle is incredible. It’s so important for youth players to have role models in a place that’s so close to them because that’s how we grow the game, right?”

And that’s where it all comes full circle for Laity, who began his coaching career at schools where only one or two girls would show up for a soccer camp. Now he’s playing a key role in shaping soccer in a region where young girls have players like Jess Fishlock, Bethany Balcer, Lauren Barnes, Megan Rapinoe, and Rose Lavelle right in their backyard.

“What the Predmores brought to not just the sport of soccer from a professional level, but also from an experiential and cultural level, has been incredible,” Laity said before acknowledging that change was needed in order for the club to meet the evolving standards of the league when it came to facilities and stadiums. It was challenging for the Predmores to step up and contribute the financial resources needed season after season.

Noting that the Predmores have always set out to do what’s best for the club and players, Laity is excited about the resources that OL Groupe brings. “I think the important thing about OL’s resources is that it’s not just financial. It’s also investing significant time and knowing what it takes to build a world-class team and a world-class club. We’re not there yet, but we will be — that’s the aspiration.”

“If that game at Lumen Field against Portland was somewhat of a final chapter in the legacy of the Predmores, I can’t think of a more fitting way for them to sign off.”

What’s next for Laity

Laity has experienced a full range of highs, lows, and everything in between so far with the Reign. So what’s next for him and his career?

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to OL Reign fans if, one day in the future, Laity is introduced as the head coach of an NWSL club. But that moment hasn’t happened yet. And while Laity may no longer be the best-kept secret in coaching, he remains an invaluable part of the OL Reign family.

“Sam’s time as interim head coach was and will be a vital part to this team and organization’s success. He has a deep-rooted history with this club that allowed him to be the perfect person to redirect the club on the path we wanted to be on,” Fishlock said in an OL Reign profile on Laity. “We will all look back on that time and never have the words to really express his importance to us.”

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