(Image credit: OL Reign twitter)
When former OL Reign manager Farid Benstiti resigned on July 2, OL Reign boasted one of the NWSL’s most talented rosters, comprising among others, Rose Lavelle, Megan Rapinoe and a trio of Olympique Lyon stars signed on a year-long loan. Their record to show for all that talent was 2-4-1, good for ninth out of ten teams in the table.
In the topsy-turvy season that has unfolded since then, the changes have been as dramatic as they are numerous: interim head coach Sam Laity took over for six games and won four of them. Former head coach Laura Harvey is set to return after a spell as assistant coach with the U.S. Women’s National Team. The trio of Lyon stars — midfielder Dzsenifer Maroszán, striker Eugénie Le Sommer and first-choice keeper Sarah Bouhaddi — have come into form and begun to produce at the level to which they were expected, with Le Sommer scoring a memorable brace to earn Player of the Week honors three weeks ago. The next week, Tziarra King, another forward under-utilized under Benstiti, earned the honors after scoring her first goal of the season in a win. This week, it’s Bethany Balcer who completes the OL Reign Player of the Week hat trick after an influential two-goal performance in a 5-1 statement win over the Houston Dash last Saturday.
Saturday’s drubbing avenged their earlier 2-0 loss to the Dash, Laity’s first match as interim manager just one day after Benstiti’s resignation. Since that July 2 loss, OL Reign have achieved a 4-1-0 record — only league leaders Portland Thorns FC have a better record over that span — to launch themselves into playoff position in sixth place with 19 points and a game in hand over the two teams ahead. Along with Harvey, high-profile roster reinforcements are on the way now that the Tokyo Olympics have officially ended; Rapinoe and Lavelle return after winning bronze with the U.S., while defensive midfielder and newly-minted gold medalist Quinn rejoins the fold as well. Those players were in Tokyo for most of OL Reign’s turnaround, so the question now becomes whether the Olympians can reintegrate and pick up where their teammates left off. Le Sommer is not worried.
“It was hard to say ‘bye’ to to these players and, of course, we say good luck [in] the Olympics, but we’re happy to to have them back because they’re in the team and we need them,” said Le Sommer in last week’s pre-match press conference ahead of the Houston win. “We need everyone to win. We have a great group. We, of course, are happy for what they did in the Olympics but we cannot wait to have them back. I’m sure that they will integrate good because I think they want [to] but also because the girls on the team want them. If we’re on the same page, it’s good for the team to have more players and more competitors. So I’m not afraid about that.”
Laity and Le Sommer were both congratulatory of Quinn specifically, who became the first out, trans athlete to win an Olympic gold medal through their strong work to help Canada to their first ever Olympic championship. “I dream of Olympics,” said Le Sommer, who has been a portrait of success for her native France at the international level but never brought home a major trophy. “It means a lot for the player and for sport.”
Now, for the first time this season, all the pieces are assembled for OL Reign: a permanent head coach, a full, finished roster, and a run of good form that has put the team within striking distance. Now, what remains to be seen is whether the Reign are able to take those pieces and achieve what everyone, from the players to the France-based owners OL Groupe, have publicly set their sights on.
“You know, elephant in the room, but we want to be champions so that’s what we’re striving for every single day,” Reign captain Lauren Barnes said after the team lost to the Dash on that July 2 game after Benstiti’s dismissal. With less than half of the NWSL season to play and the team currently positioned in the sixth and final playoff spot, it’s well within the Reign’s grasp if they can continue their momentum and pick up more results. The first team in their way this Saturday: last-place Kansas City, who have yet to win a game this season and have compiled a dismal 4 points. In a congested and competitive mid-table, any and all points picked up from the 11 remaining regular season games are vital to ensure the Reign erase their poor start with a playoff run. Only time — 90 minutes apiece, to be exact — will tell whether they do.
OL Reign and Kansas City NWSL will kick off at Legends Field in Kansas City, Kan. on Saturday, August 14 at 8pm ET. The match will be broadcast on Paramount+.