You don’t need to tell OL Reign’s interim head coach Sam Laity that things aren’t going well.
He knows, as we in the press keep reminding him, that this team boasting one of the league’s most talented rosters on paper is sitting ninth in the table with four losses in the last five games. But if you ask Laity, the team’s rut and the turbulence of manager Farid Benstiti resigning less than a third of the way through the season will not change his approach.
“The team cannot improve without individual player improvement, so that’s been the focus this week, and it will be moving forward every week,” said Laity. “If we were top of the table with leading goal scorers and eight clean sheets it wouldn’t make a difference. The objective is very simple: self improvement, collective improvement and then, where we get in the end of the season, is where we get.”
The Reign’s most recent loss came last weekend in the form of a 2-0 loss to the Houston Dash on July 2. Just about 24 hours before that match the players were informed that their gaffer would be stepping down by mutual consent.
“It’s unfortunate timing, but it’s not an excuse,” said Reign forward Sofia Huerta after the Houston match. “This is sport, you know this happens all the time. “You know, it’s never easy, but I think we can all agree the last year and a half hasn’t been easy at all, so we just have to stick together. At this point we’ve lost a few games in a row, so we just have to get that win and start scoring and I think it will come together, we all know that.”
Now, after a week of training under Laity, who has been with the club since its inaugural season in 2013, the club is ready to hit the reset button with two thirds of the season left to play. Forward Bethany Balcer, as well as Laity, have described this week’s practices as positive.
“It’s just been good to kind of go over our principles and our identity again and really solidify what we want to see on the field as a collective group,” said Balcer in the team’s midweek press conference. “So it’s been good to just remind ourselves of those and work on it, because we’re going to need a good foundation moving forward.
Their opponent this Sunday, Kansas City, has had an abysmal start of their own, managing just three points in nine matches and sitting dead last in the table. The Reign are not overly focused on catering the team’s tactics to their opponent, instead focusing on individual growth among their own side.
“I think right now we’re really focused on us,” said Balcer. “Obviously we do talk a little bit about how they play, and what we can do to combat the long balls and how we can break them down, but a lot of it is on us right now. We just have a lot to figure out. And I think you’ll just see a collective performance this weekend, which I’m really excited about. And it’s been fun to just see the interchange between all the layers we have. We have so much talent on this team.”
Laity echoed the sentiment of highlighting individual growth throughout the midweek press conference. When asked about what will be different from Benstiti’s management, Laity said that the real shift will come from the players on the pitch.
“I think there may be some minor tweaks but ultimately it’s the players that are going to change the tactics,” said Laity. “Obviously we come in with a strategy and idea of what we want to do. But it’s the individual players that really execute tactics and if we can be better individually, then we have a chance of being successful. So tactically, not a great deal to change. But from a mentality and an intensity perspective, I expect to see a change in that, especially when playing at home.”
Despite the rough start, the players are outwardly upbeat, and are leaning on leaders in the clubhouse to guide themselves through and right the ship.
“I feel like everyone in our team is a leader,” said Huerta. “We have a lot of young girls and they’ve really stepped up. And then we have girls who have been here for a really long time who kind of know how it works around here, so you have Lu Barnes, Jess Fishlock, Steph Cox. They’re really veteran players who know what it takes to get it done. I think, despite the results we really do stick together as a team and everyone has been great to be honest. I really love the team.”
While Laity is at present more concerned with growth than the current standings, there is still an expectation among the players that the team can put the pieces together and go on a run.
“You know, elephant in the room, but we want to be champions so that’s what we’re striving for every single day,” said Reign captain Lauren Barnes after the Houston match. “The start of this has obviously been a little bit rocky but that doesn’t change our goal, and where we want to be at the end of this.
For more NWSL coverage from Venus Sports, click here.