In OL Reign’s Challenge Cup opener at Lumen Field, substitute Ally Watt quickly became a fan favorite when she casually gave the referee a thumbs up — without even looking at him — after getting a yellow card for tossing the ball out of play.
Watt laughed about the moment during a conversation with Ride of the Valkyries.
“I promise I’m a really nice person. I’m just ... if I don’t agree, I will show you I don’t agree. I show my emotions and wear my emotions on my sleeve pretty well. So you’ll know how I feel. And I think I respectfully — and in as nice a way possible — showed him how I felt about the yellow card,” Watt said with a smile.
That’s the kind of passion Watt will bring every game when she suits up for OL Reign this season.
“When I’m on the field, expect me to be running a lot. And I guess apparently I’m a sassy person on the field. I’ll be going in hard. I’m not scared to slide and block clearances. I’ll just be sprinting as much as I can as well, trying to get it behind backlines and stretch them or just try to go score. Apparently, people think I’m scary on the field or I look intense. I’m really not that kind of person, but I guess I just really give that image on the field.”
That promised tenacity was on display in Watt’s first start in the 2022 NWSL Challenge Cup — April 2 on the road against Portland — where she was often the target of Thorns fans’ boos after coming in hard on a few challenges. Like many of her Reign teammates, the rivalry energy only fueled her.
“When I went to [Texas] A&M, a big rivalry was always Texas. And so we always had this hate for another team and I feed off it. My [OL Reign] teammates were like, ‘We hate Portland.’ And I was like, ‘Yep. We hate Portland. Don’t have to tell me twice.’”
Off the field, Watt is a bubbly personality and full of energy — talking nearly as fast as she runs, with a lot of added animation. The same passion that she shows on the field is evident when she talks about her family or her teammates, but the intensity she saves for the field.
The 25-year-old forward is still somewhat of an unknown after she spent most of the last two seasons rehabbing from an ACL and meniscus tear. She’s now ready to make her mark with the Reign. Ride of the Valkyries caught up with the Reign forward — discussing her injury recovery, team culture at OL Reign, and her goals for the season.
Rehab in a pandemic
Watt tore her ACL and meniscus just 13 minutes into her NWSL debut on June 27, 2020, in her first match of the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup. At the time, Watt was playing for the North Carolina Courage, who drafted her sixth overall after a standout career at Texas A&M, where she led the SEC her senior year in points (39) and goals (16) and was twice named First-Team All American.
As many who have torn their ACL know, recovery is just as much mental as it is physical. In addition to a brutal injury that required multiple surgeries, Watt had to do most of her rehabilitation alone in the middle of a pandemic, which added extra stress.
“Having to go through the entire rehab process on top of a pandemic was very challenging in a situation where rehab would be really challenging anyway. Once I finally had the surgery and was trying to do rehab, gyms weren’t open and physical therapy had very limited hours because of COVID restrictions,” Watt shared in a club profile. “I would think so much about the process and think things like ‘oh my gosh, it’s only been a month and I have maybe another eight months doing this.’ It really wasn’t great.”
She powered through solo as best she could before a trade between the Reign and Courage meant that Watt had a chance to continue her rehab in the Pacific Northwest alongside training staff and teammates. OL Reign acquired Watt in December 2020 from North Carolina in exchange for defender Taylor Smith and the rights to forward Jodie Taylor. For Watt, this move was instrumental in her recovery.
“Getting traded midway through the rehabbing was a little shocking because, why would someone trade for someone that’s not playing currently? But it just gave me some faith in myself of coming back to realize, when I’m fully back, they have faith in me to be back to the player I was. And then coming to the Reign, I think was seriously the biggest part of my whole entire rehab journey. We take a lot of pride in the team culture here. This is a family and we just encourage each other, push each other. And that’s what pushed me through my rehabbing. They’re just a bigger factor than I think they would ever realize, even still today.”
Unfortunately, Watt had yet another setback in May 2021. Just when it felt like she might be turning the corner and be close to full training, Watt got the news that she needed yet another surgery. This would be the fourth on her knee, this time to repair a failed meniscus tear repair. Doctors shaved her meniscus down and added another ligament to her knee, which made it really stable this go-around. That pushed her rehab even longer, which could have broken any player just starting their career. Watt continued to lean on her team.
“It’s a lot of the same steps, unfortunately, but at least I know it. I know the process. I’m starting to master it, and now I just have a better understanding of my body, of what my knee needs and what I need,” Watt shared on the Diaspora United podcast last July.
Her OL Reign debut
When she got finally got cleared in the fall to return to full training, Watt savored every moment. Especially the tackles.
“I have never been so happy to get hit by somebody. That’s really weird to say, but I get so happy to know that I can be tackled by people,” Watt shared in the same OL Reign profile. “I had to make a tackle in training and was actually able to make the slide tackle. All those little things that make me love the sport, I get to have again. It’s amazing.”
Watt made her Reign debut on October 10, 2021, subbing on in the 80th minute when the Reign were up 3-2 against Chicago. She was inches away from putting the Reign up by two just a few minutes later, when an opportunistic ball fell her way at the top of the box — only to be denied by the post.
Watt called her debut moment “very overwhelming” in a post-match press conference. “I was trying not to cry when I hit the field, but just relief and finally everything came together. I had great support from the team and that’s what carried me through it and I shared that moment with them.”
This team is a family
Watt uses the word “family” often when she talks about her experience so far with the Reign, coming back to the special team culture that makes her want to be her best for her teammates. When asked to elaborate, she couldn’t really put her finger on the one thing that makes the club culture so unique, but she did give a nod to the Reign originals who have been with the squad since the beginning for setting the tone.
“I don’t know how it started. I think having the leaders that we have like Lu (Barnes) and Jess (Fishlock) and Pinoe, and they’ve been here for 10 years, they’ve done a really good job of just having that foundation. And it’s just never been shaken or broken. It’s just been a sturdy foundation, and then every single player that’s come here just helped to build on it. I think just collectively as a group, we just really accept each other, encourage each other, build each other up and just find we’re just a huge family.”
On a team with so many different personalities, Watt loves how much the team comes together as a collective.
“We have so many personalities but we all have the same goal. We always make sure that’s the focus. We all have the main goal here when we play, we want to win, but we make sure that we have the chemistry off the field that will be carried onto the field — and just make sure we’re always supporting each other, always loving each other and pushing each other to be better. We’re more than just friends, we’re just family at this point.”
Some of that special team culture can be found in the simple day-to-day things. The matchday fits, where teammates hype each other up as they walk into the locker room in outfits that match their personalities. Or the early morning Wordle discussions, which have morphed into Quordle and Octordle debates. As a former honors geography student, Watt is also a big fan of Worldle. She often takes the extra step of researching places she doesn’t know much about it. “Christmas Island is infested with red crabs, I found out.”
A recent locker room uniter has been trivia. If you’re looking for Watt on a Wednesday evening, you’ll have to make the rounds at the local pubs. She and her teammates have recently gotten into pub trivia after winning their first attempt.
“Veronica [Latsko] knows a lot about U.S. history. Sinclaire [Miramontez] is really good with movies and actors, and Sam Hiatt is really good at science stuff. And then Olivia Athens is pretty good all around. And then I just pop in every once in a while with just random facts. Everybody has some missing pieces that make up the team for us.”
Who knew that pub trivia would offer a perfect metaphor for this OL Reign squad?
Goals for 2022
Unfortunately, Watt and the team’s journey ended one match short in 2021, as the club fell in the NWSL playoff semifinals to eventual champions, the Washington Spirit. As she looks ahead to her first full season in the NWSL, she has her eyes on the NWSL final just like the rest of her teammates. For now, however, it just feels good to focus 100% on soccer.
“I was talking to Sam [Laity], the assistant coach, about how it was just nice in preseason to finally be out there with the team to not have to worry about my knee, not have to worry about rehabbing, not have to be just picking, choosing, which exercises or sessions I have to do and everything like that. To just be fully in with the team and to just focus on soccer and not have to worry about something else is really nice.”
While Watt is healthy and ready for the regular season, her start on April 2 against Portland was the first time she’d played more than a half in a competitive match since March 2020. It may take some time for the forward to get back to her previous form and the confidence that comes with it. Watt is well aware of that, which is why she’s been so grateful for the preseason and extended Challenge Cup tournament ahead of the regular season.
“As much as we do our running in preseason and off the field, nothing will beat game fitness except playing games. And just getting that technical awareness again is what I think I’ve been struggling with, just because you don’t get that exposure unless you’re playing in the game. It’s just nice to finally switch on to focusing more on tactical stuff and just to find myself and where I fit into the system of this team.”
As she looks ahead now that she has played a few games — putting in meaningful minutes for the Reign — Watt’s goals for the season are actually pretty simple.
“First of all, just be injury-free. To finally get a full season as a pro would be awesome. And then, just to find myself as a player again. I feel like I still am trying to find it, because you go without playing for so long in a real game. So you’re just like, ‘Oh my gosh, what am I like as a player?’ I think finding myself and being efficient and being excellent on the field for my team is another goal. But the main one for me is honestly just to stay injury-free and just have a complete, full season.”
Secondary to this goal is one all players have: to keep improving. Watt’s time spent rehabbing gave her a chance to focus on new aspects of her game.
“My main thing as a player is of course my speed, but I wasn’t able to run all the time. My body wasn’t ready to run. So I worked on a lot of technique, a lot of juggling, small touches. I’ve been trying to add a little bit more of everything else, and the rehabbing kind of just allowed it to happen because I wasn’t always allowed to run or do the cutting yet.”
She also pointed to the benefits of having a world-class roster in 2021 — noting that going up against players like Eugénie Le Sommer and Dzsenifer Marozsán when she was cleared to train was “kind of terrifying,” but made her “faster, better, and so much quicker.”
Let’s be clear, however. While she’s working to become a multi-dimensional player, Watt’s speed is still a huge asset that any team would dream to have. A Colorado state track champion and record holder in high school — the 100- and 200-meter dash were her best races — Watt chose Texas A&M with the intention of playing soccer and running track. Some U.S. U-20 call-ups in soccer put track on the back burner, however.
Watt has shown bursts of that speed already in this Challenge Cup. Pair that with the new skills she built up last year and her tenacious fight on the field? That’s a recipe that should terrify NWSL opponents. As Watt’s roommate Bethany Balcer shared, in pointing out that she clocked nearly 22 miles per hour in practice, “Watch out world.”
someone on the team * @allymwatt * ran 35.3 km/h making her the fastest gal in the NWSL so lemme just say WATCH OUT WORLD— Bethany Balcer (@bethanybalcer) February 24, 2022
Watch out, indeed, because Ally Watt is just heating up.