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The NWSL season begins March 25.
Almost exactly a year ago, France’s top goal scorer, Eugénie Le Sommer of Olympique Lyonnais, was in Tacoma, Wash., blasting past the Houston Dash midfield and into the center of the park where she passed to Reign midfielder Jess Fishlock. The Wales national team player took the meters of free space in front of her, unleashed a shot from the top of the 18-yard box and sent the ball flying into the top left corner of the net to contribute to a dominant 5-1 win for OL Reign.
A play like that is nothing new to Fishlock and Le Sommer, who together and apart, have helped build two of the most dominant clubs in the world.
Le Sommer was on loan with the Reign in the NWSL at the time, burying eight goals during the 2021 season. With her were Lyon teammates Dzsenifer Marozsán and Sarah Bouhaddi.
On Friday, with the rest of their Lyon teammates from Division 1 Féminine, they’ll return to the state of Washington, where the Reign will host them at halftime of their match Sunday against Gotham FC. Lyon will then head to Portland, Ore. to play Chelsea FC in the first round of the Women’s International Champions Cup on Wednesday, while the Reign will go to Louisville, Ky. to compete in The Women’s Cup.
Players and coaches for both teams took time to reflect on the clubs’ intercontinental relationship before they come together in person this weekend, sitting down for interviews with Just Women’s Sports and for a three-part video series on OL Reign’s website.
“We miss you, Eug,” Reign midfielder Jess Fishlock told Le Sommer on one of those calls. “When you come over, when I see you, I’m going to steal you.”
Fishlock is a big reason why Le Sommer went to play for the Reign in 2021. They first met when Fishlock joined Lyon on loan from 2018-19.
“We had a really great time together,” said Le Sommer.
The friendship represents a bigger sisterhood between the two teams. The clubs are connected by the same owner, OL Groupe, who acquired the Reign in 2019. The visit on Sunday will be an opportunity not only for players like Fishlock and Le Sommer to reconnect with friends, but also for the athletes and coaches who have yet to meet their sister club counterparts.
“It’s important,” Lyon assistant coach Camille Abily said of the visit. “We can meet each other, and I think we can learn about the OL Reign team.”
Due to their busy schedules, Reign head coach Laura Harvey and Lyon coach Sonia Bompastor had never spoken before our three-way phone call, a mere two weeks ahead of Lyon’s visit to Lumen Field. But simply watching each other’s success has helped them grow in their own roles.
“The support is there from both sides, but I think there’s just always an appreciation and respect,” said Harvey. “I can only speak for me, but from my side, just who Sonia is and what she’s done in the game as a player and obviously now what she’s achieving as a coach speaks for itself, really.”
Before Sunday, members of the Reign and Lyon spent time discussing the three primary values that keep them connected and motivating each other from across the ocean: competitiveness, women’s empowerment and sustainability.
Both clubs have featured some of the most decorated players in women’s soccer. That includes Fishlock, the reigning NWSL MVP who joined the Reign in 2013, and Le Sommer, who has 178 goals in 213 appearances with Lyon since 2010. Reign midfielder Megan Rapinoe won the Ballon d’Or in 2019, the year after it was awarded to Lyon’s Ada Hegerberg.
Olympique Lyonnais could be considered the best women’s soccer club in the world, having won all 14 Division 1 Féminine championships between 2006 and 2020, seven Champions League titles and 11 Coupe de France Féminine trophies. Across the pond, the Reign have consistently been one of the strongest teams in the NWSL, with back-to-back NWSL Shields in 2014 and ’15 and five semifinal appearances in eight seasons.
Harvey and Bompastor partnered for a conversation about women empowerment in the video series. While Harvey won NWSL Coach of the Year in 2014, 2015 and 2021, Bompastor is the only woman to have won the UEFA Women’s Champions League as both a player (2011, 2012) and a coach (2022).
For her sake, Harvey said the Reign’s standard of success can be attributed in part to Fishlock, Rapinoe and Lauren Barnes sticking with the club since its inception in 2013.
“They’ve been able to enable us to build a culture of what’s expected,” she said. “And then new faces and standards that we set in training and around games every day, those three who’ve been here the whole time understand what that means. They can then help the new ones implement that.”
Retaining multiple talented players for years on end is difficult in the U.S. pro league because of salary caps and player movement via trades. The system isn’t necessarily set up to keep winning since the NWSL seeks parity.
Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas, who is also chairman of the Reign, will often use branding from the men’s side to elevate the women’s club. That relationship is not as common in the U.S., where the NWSL is separate from Major League Soccer (MLS), the men’s professional league.
“We can take everything that’s good with the men’s part and try to do the same with the girls,” Bompastor said of Lyon.
The relationship between the clubs only gets stronger as they take advantage of loan and training opportunities. OL Reign’s Bethany Balcer and Sofia Huerta trained with Lyon in 2020, and Rapinoe played for Lyon in 2013 and ’14 before the partnership was even established.
Reign goalkeeper Phallon Tullis-Joyce said acquiring Le Sommer, Marozsán and Boudhaddi on loan last season was “that little spark” the Reign needed to get into playoffs.
“I think that’s the interesting thing that you have now with this collaboration between the two teams, is that you could just keep increasing your forces with each side and flipping back and forth,” Tullis-Joyce said.
Fishlock and Le Sommer said the loans helped them learn new styles of soccer and broaden their skill sets.
“Also a different level of understanding your teammates, because Lyon works like a machine,” Fishlock said. “They’re just like a cog, and they really helped me have more awareness of how can I help my teammates.”
“It was really different than my time in Lyon,” Le Sommer said of playing for the Reign and the physicality of American soccer. “But it was something also, to me, to be more open and to see another [style of] football and another way to play and how you can also win in another way of thinking … It was amazing for me.”
The unity the Reign and OL are forging between American and European football also helps grow women’s soccer as a whole, even as the media and fans continue to debate which league is better.
“There are different ways to play, different ways to understand football,” said Le Sommer.
“The only thing that matters at the end of the day is, are you affected and do you win at what you do? That’s the most important thing,” Fishlock said. “I think that’s why it’s really good to have to keep this kind of relationship because it will kind of solidify the actual approach and allow us to be in the same space at the same time, which is what women’s football should be able to do and take up space.”
They’re also pushing each other to take up space off the field, using their platforms to fight for environmental sustainability. Tullis-Joyce and Camille Abily teamed up for a video last week. on that exact subject.
Last year, Lyon named an organization they’ve been working with for over a decade, Veolia, their official “environmental partner.” The sides meet every month to discuss environmental issues around the club and drive initiatives like using reusable water bottles instead of plastic ones. Signing MG as their transportation partner last year, Lyon has also started using electric cars and installing charging stations at their training facility.
On the other side of the ocean, the Reign are striving to become one of the most sustainable clubs in America. With Barnes leading the way, they’re giving careful consideration to the everyday products they use, the merchandise they sell and the food they eat.
The Reign’s commitment to the environment made the decision to join the club a no-brainer for Tullis-Joyce, who scuba dives in her spare time.
“I just thought it was absolutely incredible, how forward this team was in their thinking of respecting the environment,” she said. “I wanted to be all about that. And now I’m kind of trying to wiggle my way into being like a little ocean girl. We’re saving the planet, and then I’ll just be like, ‘And the ocean, too.’”
While both teams are focused on the present and the future, the partnership doesn’t come without some nostalgia for the club that used to be: Seattle Reign. In 2019, the team relocated to Tacoma and was rebranded as Reign FC. In 2020, they changed their name to OL Reign.
“It was tough,” Fishlock said of the rebrand. “But it was something that we needed to do for our club.”
She fondly remembers the old footage and the crest on the jersey that the team and fans were so fond of.
“I don’t think we’ll ever forget about Seattle Reign and the badge and the history, and I don’t think you can because we had such a good history,” Fishlock said. “But obviously, we want to bring that kind of side of who we are into our new kind of brand, which I think is super important because you cannot forget our history.”
Harvey coached the Reign from 2013-17 before returning to the team in 2021. While she appreciates the club’s Seattle origins, she knows the rebrand hasn’t changed their identity. They’ve continued to foster the same competitive, empowering, sustainable and inclusive environment, just like their European sister club.
“What comes with OL,” Harvey said, “has elevated who the Reign wanted to be.”
Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.
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