With the NWSL regular season nearing the home stretch, OL Reign received a difficult assignment last week: a grueling schedule that saw them play three matches in seven days, all three of which were played away from their home stadium.
The Tacoma club proved their mettle — and their status as genuine championship contenders — by taking points in all three of them.
After two wins in the days leading up to last Saturday, the week was capped off with a tired squad managing a 1-1 draw courtesy of a 74th-minute equalizer from Bethany Balcer, whose eighth goal of the season pushed her to the top of the NWSL scorers table as well as earning her Player of the Week honors for the second time this season. Balcer is one of five Reign players this season to be named Player of the Week
“I’m really proud of the group, it’s been a long journey,” said Reign captain Lauren Barnes. “We got seven [points] out of nine. Obviously, we were shooting for nine out of nine, but that’s really great for being on the road.”
“Slow start by us, but we were definitely the better side. We just have to be more clinical on both ends, the attacking box and defensive box, and that’s how we’re going to start winning games.”
Balcer’s goal wiped out a 23rd-minute goal by Louisville’s Nadia Nadim. For parts of the first half, it looked as if the Reign’s busy week had finally caught up to them, but a series of early second-half substitutions by manager Laura Harvey produced influential performances in midfield by Quinn and Jess Fishlock and helped turn the tide to secure a draw.
“I think [Quinn and Fishlock] did incredible coming on,” Barnes said. “They really changed the game for us, gave us runs and behind and good pockets playing forward and breaking up play. So it was incredible but we just need to make sure that we can do that for 90 minutes.”
Harvey said in her post-match press obligations that if you’d told her before the start of the three-game week that her team would manage seven out of nine points, “I’d have taken them,” but overall, there was a feeling of disappointment in not leaving Louisville with a victory — an indication of where Harvey’s standards are for one of the league’s most talented rosters.
“We still had chances in the first half to score goals and our quality’s got to be better,” Harvey said. “And then in the second half, I just thought we dominated and again, we created enough opportunities to win the game … Happy for the group that we’ve grinded out a ridiculous schedule of three games in six days and traveled across the country which is just mind-blowing to me. But I think the overarching emotion right now is that we’re disappointed not to come away with three points.
For at least a split second on Saturday night, it appeared the Reign had in fact secured the three points. In what has become commonplace for the NWSL, the match had a controversial ending. Fishlock appeared to have slipped in behind the defense and scored a stoppage-time winner but was ruled to be offside. Both Harvey and Fishlock registered their disapproval with the decision after the match.
“The one with Jess (Fishlock) she’s not offside,” Harvey said. “Like, I’ve watched it multiple times. I think that, you know, those things really matter in the biggest moments.”
Shortly after Saturday’s game, the Reign went back on the road, this time to Washington, D.C to give themselves a week on the East Coast in preparation for their Sunday matchup with the Washington Spirit.
“We’ve had enough time to chill out a little bit and get some good training sessions in without having to go back to the west coast and then come back,” Harvey said. “It’s felt like camp to me … I think we’ve been able to take a breath a little bit and reflect on last week.”
The Spirit notably had their match against Portland Thorns FC canceled due to a number of Covid positives among the team and a reportedly low vaccination rate. While all systems appear to be go for this weekend, last week’s cancellation and the uncertainty around who is fit to play — in addition to the small amount of game film of the Spirit under interim coach Kris Ward — has made the Spirit difficult to scout.
“For us right now it’s about us more than it is about the opponent.” Harvey said. “But, we always like to have as much information as we can about who we’re about to play, and I think them not having a game last week, and not knowing who is going to play and [who] isn’t going to play, I think it’s made it harder.”
Reign midfielder Rose Lavelle, who has come into form recently and will rejoin the national team for the September window after Sunday’s match, is excited to square off against her former side, who traded her rights to the Reign after the season. Though a lot has changed for the Spirit since then, including the sacking of coach Richie Burke and an increased presence in downtown D.C. with their semi-permanent occupation of D.C. United’s Audi Field, Sunday’s host venue.
“I think the games at Audi are always great,” Lavelle said. “They draw a great crowd and they do an awesome job with that. So I think it’s going to be a really exciting game. I think I maybe have a bit of a luxury of knowing the players and knowing their style a little more but regardless, I’m excited.”
OL Reign and Washington Spirit will kick off on Sunday, Sep. 12 at 5pm ET. The match can be seen on Paramount+.
(Image credit-OL Reign twitter)