(Image courtesy of OL Reign twitter)
OL Reign, riding their first two-match win streak of their somewhat tumultuous 2021 season, will host Houston Dash Saturday night with a chance to jockey for playoff position.
Now halfway through the 24-match NWSL season, the Reign have battled through a disappointing start, winning three of their past five matches under interim coach Sam Laity. Still in eighth place but with on-field performance improving, the Tacoma club now finds itself in a congested mid-table just one point out of the sixth and final playoff spot, which is presently occupied by Saturday’s opponent.
“I think the intensity of how we’ve defended has been very, very good and that’s led to opportunities for us to hurt the opponent,” Laity said of what he thinks has improved since taking over after a lackluster start. “I think just the sort of synergy between having a somewhat consistent starting XI for these periods of four or five games has also been very important. It’s enabled the players to build on the relationships with each other.”
Saturday’s match will be the last with Laity as head coach, as incoming gaffer Laura Harvey is set to return from Tokyo, where she helped guide the U.S. Women’s National Team to an Olympic bronze medal as an assistant to head coach and fellow Reign alum Vlatko Andonovski, before embarking on a second tenure in charge. Laity, who has been with the Reign since the team’s founding, will continue to serve in his previous role as assistant coach. The matchup with Houston provides a bit of narrative symmetry to round out Laity’s time at the helm; Laity’s first match as interim head coach was a road loss to Houston just one day after previous manager Farid Benstiti resigned his post by mutual consent.
“I would say that that game was probably synonymous with where the team was at that period,” said Laity of the early July loss to the Dash. “We were creating chances and not scoring and we’re giving up relatively soft goals. We’ve had to work at both ends of the field to try and improve those things.
“In terms of Houston, I think mostly, unless they change what they do tomorrow which would surprise me, I think most people know what they expect from Houston. But knowing what to expect and then dealing with it in those critical moments is another thing.”
The Reign enter the match on a high note after last weekend’s 2-0 win over expansion side Racing Louisville FC powered by a first-half brace from forward Eugénie Le Sommer, whose goals were her first in a Reign uniform after joining the side on loan from French parent side Olympique Lyonnais. The French international made headlines for her first goal in particular, a spectacular move in the 27th minute which left defender Erin Simon in a heap on the ground before a curling finish found the twine. Le Sommer’s performance saw her become the second consecutive Reign player named NWSL Player of the Week after Tziarra King, a talented forward enjoying a positive run of form after struggling for play time under Benstiti, achieved the same title in a victory the week prior.
“Well, finally,” Le Sommer chuckled after her winning performance against Louisville. “I had a lot of chances since my beginning in the league, and I’m happy to score today and, of course, to win the game, because when you score and you lose it’s not the same feeling … I just want to keep going as a team. I know we can be better, so it’s not finished, but it’s a good way to start and to continue.”
Over the last two games, the Reign have had a +4 goal differential, keeping clean sheets in consecutive 2-0 decisions. While Louisville outshot the Reign 17-10 last weekend, they were held to just two shots on target by the Reign back line. The Reign were forced into an early substitution after right back Maddison Hammond picked up a knock and had to exit the game for Celia Jimenez Delgado. Hammond has since returned to training and her injury is not serious, according to Laity.
“I thought she did a good job,” Laity said of Jimenez after the match. “It’s never easy to come into a game, especially that early. I thought Celia did well, yeah. She gave us a different dimension.”
While the season is long and winding, and will take on a different complexion still when Harvey takes up the mantle, both players and coaches at OL Reign believe the side have become more settled and cohesive, a result of the chemistry that has been built as the new players have had time to adjust to the league, and the players’ positive outlook despite the poor results early on.
“We just trust each other,” said Le Sommer. “At training we work hard to understand each other because we had a lot of players that were new in the team … we didn’t have this relationship on the pitch and it’s something you need to train to have, so that’s what we did. Of course, the result was better and we played better together.”