When OL Reign clinched their third and most improbable Shield at the end of the National Women's Soccer League regular season, they instantly became the favorites in the playoffs as the No. 1 seed. Now, the Reign are aiming to return to the NWSL Championship for the first time since 2015, and will open their postseason campaign on Sunday, when they host the Kansas City Current, the No. 5 seed.
But contrary to what might be suggested by winning the NWSL Shield, the league's award for the best team of the regular season, the Reign didn't dominate their way through 2022. Unlike the Reign's previous Shield wins in the NWSL's early days, this one didn't come easy.
For starters, consider how they secured the Shield on the final day of the season: the Reign defeated the Orlando Pride 3-0 a few hours after their rivals and season-long favorites, the Portland Thorns, stumbled to a 3-3 road draw at last-place NJ/NY Gotham FC.
Portland's result opened the door for the Reign to win the Shield by one point, while the Reign had not finished any week prior this season on top of the table.
The Reign's victory to close out the season was a fourth straight and an extension of a seven-game unbeaten streak in league play that helped the Seattle side chase down the Shield. Their last loss? A 2-1 defeat at home on Aug. 7 against the Houston Dash.
In hindsight, that loss appears to have been a turning point. On that day, the Reign led only 1-0 at halftime despite dominating the Dash. Then, Dash forward Ebony Salmon scored twice in two minutes, and the Reign fell to sixth place, just above the playoff line.
"I feel like this group had a choice to make after the Houston game at home of: What team are we going to be?" Reign coach Laura Harvey said recently. "Are we going to be this team that plays great football, creates a ton of chances, but doesn't quite get there? There was a chance we weren't going to get into the playoffs...
"I feel like something changed in the group that week where there was a real mentality shift of, we know that we're good. We know we're talented. We know that we have the ability to win games because we'd been doing it. We'd been creating so many chances in games and not punishing teams. You could have that as your story, right? Didn't make it because we couldn't finish our chances. But since then, we've sort of turned into a different team a little bit."
What followed was an emphatic 4-1 victory over struggling Gotham and a trophy in The Women's Cup, an invitational tournament that included wins for the Reign over Mexico's Club America and hosts Racing Louisville. In late August, Harvey called the week in Louisville "one of the proudest moments I have had as a coach."
While the Women's Cup trophy added momentum to the Reign's form, equally important in their run to the Shield was a dramatic, 2-1 victory over Orlando on Aug. 26 to end a road trip. Reign forward Megan Rapinoe scored the game-winner in second-half stoppage time.
"I mean, I just feel like it's that point in the season," Rapinoe said afterward. "Like, this is our season. We obviously haven't clinched playoffs. We've dropped some important points earlier on in the season. This is getting to crunch time in the season where you either win or you don't pick up enough points."
The Reign's talent differential
Rapinoe's role in the Reign's turnaround is undeniable.
The 37-year-old played limited minutes early in the season as she battled injuries. The road back made her question, at times, whether she should retire. Then, she rejoined the U.S. women's national team in June for the CONCACAF W Championship, reestablishing herself as a core member of the team as manager Vlatko Andonovski had been casting other veterans aside.
All of Rapinoe's seven goals and four assists for the Reign have come in the nine games since returning from the CONCACAF W Championship in mid-July.
As was the case with Rapinoe, a lack of talent was never a problem -- prior to their late-summer turnaround, the Reign's results just didn't match their talent.
The Reign dropped winnable games and slogged through the early part of the season that, like most teams in the league, loaded their legs up with heavy travel and quick turnarounds thanks to making the semifinals of the NWSL Challenge Cup. A July 30 trip to Los Angeles epitomized the inconsistencies: Angel City FC went ahead 2-0 after 28 minutes before the Reign scored three times in the last half hour, including an 89th-minute game-winner from Tobin Heath.
But eventually, all the talent clicked to put together the back end of the Reign's season. Rose Lavelle enjoyed her best, most consistent season as a professional. Sofia Huerta was the best full-back in the NWSL this year, her first season playing the position full-time. Jess Fishlock followed up her 2021 MVP season with another steady presence as the Reign's engine.
Somewhat quietly, the Reign also compiled the best defensive season in the league, conceding only 19 goals in 22 games. They did that with first-year starter Phallon Tullis-Joyce in net. They didn't score at the pace of their rivals to the south, the stacked Portland Thorns, who put together a ridiculous run of attacking form, scoring 49 goals in 22 matches. The Thorns stockpiled some of those goals, however, beating Houston 4-0 and Orlando 6-0 in back-to-back games in June, followed by a 5-0 thrashing of Gotham in July.
Portland also stumbled through August right as the Reign began to surge. The Thorns took only four points from four league games and failed to win both their friendly matches in the Women's International Champions Cup. Portland did course-correct in September, but the Reign remained relentless.
It all culminated in the regular-season finale. The NWSL's ill-advised decision to spread out the regular-season finales across three different days meant that the Reign-Orlando game was the last of a Saturday evening, a 10 p.m. ET kickoff. The final whistle blew on the Thorns' disappointing draw in New Jersey before the Reign even began warmups, meaning the Reign knew they could secure the Shield with a win.
"A lot needed to happen for this to come into our own hands today," a beaming Fishlock said after the Shield-clinching victory. "I'm not going to lie to you, after the first half in the Gotham game, I was like, 'Ah, there's no chance in hell.' But thank you, Gotham, we appreciate that. As soon as it was in our hands, I'm not kidding you, I had no worries. Because our team and our mentality and the players we have, and the performance we got tonight I think was extremely professional."
Fishlock was at the podium with Rapinoe and Lauren Barnes, three players who have been with the Reign since that inaugural NWSL season in 2013. All three were also integral to the teams that won the Shield in 2014 and 2015 but lost to FC Kansas City in the NWSL Championship on both occasions.
The 2014 Reign team was arguably the best in league history, a group -- led by Harvey in her first stint as head coach -- that went 16 games unbeaten to start the season and lost only twice all year. They won the Shield by 13 points that season.
This year was different, the trio said, and that much is obvious. The races for the Shield and the final playoff spots came down to the final minutes of the season. Up until the last two weeks of the regular season, a six-way tie for first place was a possibility that hardly seemed too absurd.
San Diego Wave FC spent half the season atop the table but finished third. The Kansas City Current had a chance at the Shield on the final weekend, too, after Portland's draw, but the Current lost in Louisville and fell to fifth place. Those kinds of margins are unprecedented even for a typically tight league.
"I've said this for 10 years, since I stepped foot in this league: I have no idea why the Shield is not celebrated with far more respect," Fishlock said. "Because I'll tell you something: winning this league throughout the whole year, being at the top of the league is not f---ing easy. I've won leagues everywhere -- it is the hardest thing to do over here."
Momentum and cooling-off periods in the NWSL
The Reign celebrated their Shield before yet another disruption to their season -- a potentially momentum-killing international break. Harvey pointed out earlier in the season that all their big victories have felt short-lived because they came right before international windows. First, the comeback in LA, then the late win in Orlando.
Another break immediately followed the end of the NWSL regular season -- the U.S. national team, with Reign players Rapinoe and Lavelle, spent the break losing to England and Spain -- which means the Reign will have had three weeks off by the time they take the field on Sunday.
If playoffs are about peaking at the right time, the Reign faithful may be uncomfortable without knowing whether the Reign will enter playoffs still in red-hot form or cooled off from the break.
Awaiting the Reign, however, is unfinished business, as Rapinoe called it. There was the disappointment of 2014 and 2015. Last year, the Reign nearly chased down the Thorns for the Shield, but came up two points short before losing to the Washington Spirit in the semifinals.
"It has been elusive," Rapinoe said. "We did not forget -- ever -- the championships that we lost after dominant years. So, we want to continue this run of form that we're in. I feel like we have really good momentum."
Harvey noted that most NWSL champions of yesteryear have not been the most dominant team in the league, but rather the team in the right form at the right time. That is not entirely true -- the North Carolina Courage went wire-to-wire in 2018 and 2019 -- but it is how life played out for the Reign previously.
Celebration of this year's Shield was somewhere between measured and full-blown, a space the Reign have inhabited before. Barnes, Fishlock and Rapinoe cracked celebratory Michelob Ultra beers at the podium for the post-game news conference and were clearly ready for more once the camera shut off. They also knew that this was not the end of their collective task.
For a moment, at least, the Shield is what mattered. Still, there is no hiding from the Reign's failures in past playoffs. This year, with a team in this good of form, is as good a time as any to change that.
"We enjoy winning," Harvey said on the final day of the regular season. "We've enjoyed winning all year. I think that's actually a big part of why we've been able to get on the run we have and show the quality we've had. Winning games in this league is really difficult, and when you do it, you should celebrate it. We've celebrated every single one of them this year. All 11 games we've celebrated like we won the league -- tonight's just lasted a little bit longer.
"But yeah, we have got bigger goals."