After an uneven 2020 for OL Reign, the Washington state club is endeavoring to build a winning formula in 2021.
With a strong Challenge Cup showing under their belts and a slew of new arrivals on – and off – the pitch, The Bold appear to very much be on their way.
2021 marks OL Reign’s second season under head coach Farid Benstiti as well as their Lyon, France-based owners OL Groupe, who also own Ligue 1 giants Olympique Lyonnais. Benstiti acknowledged the challenges his side faced in trying to jell with their new conditions and managerial style during the pandemic-altered 2020 season which saw them play only two matches on their new home pitch at Tacoma’s Cheney Stadium.
“Last year, COVID made it very difficult to get the smooth transition into the club that I had wanted,” Benstiti said. “We worked to organize the team and try to figure out how to help our players improve. It was not an easy period for my first year, but it was a very good experience.” While the 2021 season promises to provide the Reign more stability, there are plenty of new faces introduced to the club on both the corporate and footballing levels. Since the 2021 league calendar began, Starbucks, Hyperice and Gatorade have signed on as major corporate sponsors, continuing a trend of NWSL clubs boosting their investment through star-studded ownership groups and new corporate partners.
On the pitch, OL Reign announced the much-hyped arrival of two stars on a season-long loan from their Lyonnaise parent club: midfielder Dzsenifer Marozsán and goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi. Both players will arrive in Tacoma in June, at the close of their domestic season with OL’s Division 1 Fémenine side overseas.
Benstiti lauded the talents of both players while explaining their rationale for joining in an interview at the players’ loan announcemnt.
“I think she wanted, like she told me, a new challenge,” said Bensititi of the German international Marozsán. “I want to see her when she’s not comfortable, and I think she’s ready for this challenge.”
Marozsán echoed her desire for such a new test in the NWSL, which is believed by many to be the most competitive women’s league in the world.
“It’s a new culture and a new mentality, and it will be good [for] me to improve,” said Marozsán.
Bouhaddi, FIFA’s reigning (pun not intended, but welcome) Best Goalkeeper, has been with Lyon since 2009, winning a staggering 11 league titles and seven UEFA Women’s Champions League finals as Les Fenottes’ first-choice keeper. She will join in on a revolving door of goalkeepers for OL Reign, as current starter Karen Bardsley’s loan spell from Manchester City ends June 30.
Benstiti praised Bouhaddi’s talent, confidence and versatility as well as her ability to handle the ball, an increasingly valuable commodity in today’s game.
“Sarah can play the field,” said Benstiti. “She’s a modern goalkeeper. She has left foot, right foot, heading. She’s like a center-back.”
Benstiti believes that the two legends can get a lot out of a season in the states.
“Even [though] they had a very good career, [they] can still improve and continue to be the best,” Benstiti said.
Reign CEO Bill Predmore spoke of the efforts it took to bring the players in from Lyon.
“Over the past months we made several trades, loans and other roster moves to free up the needed cap space and roster spots, while working to acquire the international slots, allocation money, and the other assets required to make these signings possible,” said Predmore.
Such moves included selling the NWSL rights to midfielder Allie Long to NJ/NY Gotham FC. OL Reign received $80,000 in allocation money and a draft pick in exchange for the US international.
Of course, no two players ever make up a team on their own, and Reign have to play several regular season matches without Bouhaddi and Marozsán’s services until June. They performed admirably in this regard during the months of April and May in the Challenge Cup, the NWSL’s preseason tournament. Players such as defender Celia and attacker Sofia Huerta were vital in OL Reign’s balanced and diverse Challenge Cup rotation, with five different players (including the aforementioned pair) contributing one goal apiece over the four group stage matches. The Reign ended the tournament with a 2-1-1 record, a West division record second only to Cascadia rivalry sparring partners Portland Thorns FC, who advanced to the event’s final.
The return of superstar forward Megan Rapinoe also won’t hurt. The US international can, for all intents and purposes, be put in the “new” category for this modern iteration of OL Reign; while Rapinoe has been with the organization since 2013, she has not been a consistent fixture in the club’s XI since 2018.
With the NWSL deciding to forgo a break in league play to accommodate this summer’s Olympic tournament, depth will be an important factor for every NWSL side that feature international talent. Benstiti praised his team’s depth of talent in January.
“Players like Sam Hiatt, Leah Pruitt, Madison Hammond, Ally Watt and Tziarra King who will grow into their potential this year,” Benstiti said in January. “Bethany Balcer will continue to be a very important player. I’m very excited to have everybody and to work to improve the squad,” he continued.
As what turned out to be a very busy offseason comes to a close to make way for the team’s May 15 regular season opener against North Carolina Courage, a study of OL Reign’s personnel moves indicate that the Washingtonians are focused on immediate success in the 2021 season. There are, of course exceptions; for example, they signed goalkeeper Cosette Morché on through 2022 to back up Bouhaddi and give her time to develop as a potential starter next season. But the totality of OL Reign’s roster decisions point to one common target: win now. Just ask Marozsán what her goals are for The Bold this season.
“To win every game,” Maroszán said. “That’s always my objective.”
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