Knock on wood, but it appears that OL Reign may be peaking at the right time. The club returns to Lumen Field on Saturday, October 1, to close out the regular season in front of their fans. They already qualified for the postseason and are guaranteed a home playoff match, but the Reign could be vying for the NWSL Shield or a first-round playoff bye as well.
Considering the team had been hanging around near 6th place for the last few months, their late surge should be an exciting one for Reign supporters.
In fact, this last week, OL Reign did something no team in the NWSL has done this year: they won three road matches in a row. Those three matches came in the span of eight days and saw the team travel from Seattle to North Carolina, then to New Jersey, and then to Houston before they could return home. That’s about 6,000 flight miles. During that journey, OL Reign faced two teams in playoff contention, earned two shutouts, and scored five goals.
“We’ve said all season that we want to be just as hard to beat away as we are at home,” forward Bethany Balcer said ahead of the road trip.
The team certainly accomplished that during this three-game road adventure, finding different ways to win matches.
In North Carolina, going up against an intimidating offensive threat, the Reign went down early on an unfortunate own goal, but the players responded with two quick goals from Rose Lavelle and Megan Rapinoe. Then, the team gritted it out on the defensive end to hang onto the lead — with some masterful saves from Phallon Tullis-Joyce along the way.
Against Gotham, the team struggled to find any offensive rhythm while staying organized defensively. Rapinoe and Jess Fishlock subbed into the match in the 56th minute and immediately earned a penalty — with Rapinoe burying the chance, scoring the lone goal in the match. Gotham wasn’t a big threat after that.
In Houston, the team sat back on defense so the Dash couldn’t play their trademark style built around speed. The Reign had tired legs and managed to get just eight shots off, but they still found a way to net two goals — earning back-to-back shutouts in the process.
The soccer wasn’t always beautiful last week, but OL Reign is playing right now like a team on a mission. A team that knows how to manage a game, no matter what is thrown at them.
“It was just gutsy, honestly,” head coach Laura Harvey said after their final road match of the season. “I don’t think it was very pretty at times. But, to win on the road in this league, to get nine points on this three-game road trip just says a lot about this group of players and their mentality. I’m really proud of them and really excited for what this can mean for us, because I think we’ve been a team this year that’s played some really, really good football and we feel we’ve not got what we deserve at times.”
The team can thank Houston for where they’re at right now. In early August, OL Reign earned their only home loss of the season against the Dash. It was the result of a three-minute span where the Reign turned the ball over twice and allowed Houston to counter. That 2-1 loss sparked a teamwide conversation and a mental reset.
“I feel that this group had a choice to make after the Houston game at home: what team are we going to be?” Harvey said during OL Reign’s road trip run. “Are we going to be this team that plays great football, creates a ton of chances but doesn’t quite get there? I feel like something changed in the group that week where there was a real mentality shift.”
Fishlock mirrored these comments as well after playing in her first game in more than three weeks due to a hamstring injury.
“I actually think that we have built that [mentality] throughout the season. I definitely feel like we are a lot stronger in our minds — that we will do what we need to do no matter what — than say at the beginning of the season, which I think is such a credit to this group. We’re allowing each other to grow but also grow together to kind of have that mindset.”
It says something that OL Reign has yet to give up a goal between minutes 75 and 90 this entire season. Doing that takes a collective mindset among the whole team, a belief that no matter the game state, they are not giving up a late goal.
“I think this team knows how to dig in and I think the last three games we’ve seen our ability to manage the game, manage the end of games,” defender Alana Cook said after the win in Houston. “We have a lot of smart players on the field. We have a lot of experience on the field, and those who are less experienced are learning from those around them.”
What’s perhaps most impressive when you look at any of the team’s stats is how OL Reign has done it this year. Saturday’s match in Houston featured another new starting XI for OL Reign, which means they now have 20 different starting XIs in 21 games this season.
When you have to rotate lineups each game, moving one or two players in and out, that can be tough for a team’s rhythm. You often want a core group of starters to gel and have lots of time with one another. OL Reign hasn’t had that luxury for a few reasons: international duty, injuries, fixture congestion, and experimenting to find the right attacking combinations early in the year.
It hasn’t been easy for the Reign. Toward the start of the year, they were creating more chances than almost any other team in the league and just couldn’t find the back of the net. The Reign have scored the fewest goals among the teams currently in playoff spots. Still, to get the results they have with 20 different starting lineups says something. It is clear that every player understands their role and has chemistry with their teammates.
Veronica Latsko perhaps sums this up best. When asked to share her message to fans ahead of OL Reign’s final home match of the regular season, her feelings were clear. “It’s going to be incredible. With this team, the sky’s the limit. If you want to see greatness and a team that is so together and amazing, come and witness it for yourself — because the television doesn’t do it justice.”
OL Reign has a chance to earn the NWSL Shield or a top-two playoff spot on Saturday when the team faces the Orlando Pride at Lumen Field. The match kicks off at 7 PM PT and will stream on Twitch exclusively. Tickets are still available, but they are going fast, which means this should be one of the Reign’s best-attended matches this season.