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There are few managers more synonymous with success than OL Reign’s Laura Harvey. In a league currently dominated by a constantly moving carousel of open coaching positions, the original manager of the Seattle Reign has endured, leading the team to their first NWSL Championship appearance since 2015.
Known for her humor, candor and proclivity for sitting on an ice cooler in the coach’s box during games, Harvey is already an iconic figure in NWSL history.
When you speak to her players, Harvey’s strengths as a manager are reflected in their words. She’s described by forward Megan Rapinoe as “the best manager I’ve ever had,” and by defender Sofia Huerta as the only coach she’s had that “knows what they’re talking about, and really cares about the players.” Midfielder Jess Fishlock says her managing style is “just successful, man. It works. It’s such a respectful way of working.” And defender Alana Cook says “she looks after us as humans before players.”
All players say that Harvey is the person who sets the culture upon which everything in the locker room is based. And if the Reign win the 2023 NWSL Championship by defeating Gotham FC in San Diego on Saturday, it will be because they leaned further into that culture rather than turned away from it.
Harvey is the longest-tenured coach in the NWSL, even after stepping away from the Reign from 2018-21. NWSL coaching positions as a whole have become difficult jobs to hold in recent years, either due to off-field misconduct or on-field results.
Harvey has the staunch support of her players for the way she treats them off the field, but the Reign also could be rewarded for patience with results over the years. Harvey famously has led the Reign to three NWSL Shields, an honor many on the team feel is more reflective of a truly successful season than the two- or three-game playoff run to the championship. But the team has also become synonymous with struggling in the playoffs, falling to lower seeds in recent years after earning top-two finishes in the regular season.
Consequently, Harvey’s record in knockout matches has seeped into the conversation about her reputation as a manager over time. Prior to 2023, Seattle had won only two playoff matches in the club’s history — two semifinals in 2014 and 2015. In both of those postseasons, the team fell in the championship match to Vlatko Andonovski’s FC Kansas City, and until this year had not registered another postseason win despite making the semifinals every single season from 2018-22.
Harvey’s knockout record (and her old coaching battles with Andonovski) have followed her, especially after Andonovski was named manager of the U.S. women’s national team in 2019. Harvey, who’d made the jump to become a coach at the U.S. development level in 2018, was considered a contender for the USWNT job after Jill Ellis stepped down in the aftermath of the 2019 World Cup victory. But Andonovski had the consistent record in playoff matches, one of the closest equivalents to international tournament play available at the domestic level.
Fast forward to 2023, and Harvey’s name again was in the mix for the USWNT job after Andonovski struggled to continue the program’s history of excellence with a disappointing Olympic and World Cup run. And once again, the well-respected Seattle coach appears to be left on the shortlist, with reports indicating that the job will go to current Chelsea manager Emma Hayes instead. Hayes, like Harvey, has a history of excellence at the club level, but she also has domestic knockout tournament wins in the FA Cup.
So if the Reign appear to go out of their way to win for their manager on Saturday, the intensity is warranted. The Reign have doubled their playoff win count in 2023, with two assertive victories in the quarterfinals and semifinals. And Harvey’s players have been steadfast in their desire to get over the top of that one final hill and earn their manager the respect they feel she deserves.
“I actually think a lot of people still underrate Laura Harvey as a coach anyway, which is absolutely mind-boggling to me. I don’t understand what else she needs to do,” says Fishlock, who has played for the Reign since their founding in 2013. “Laura has a structure. She knows what she wants, she has her principles, but within that she has fluidity.”
The Reign are known to play some of the most beautiful, free-flowing soccer in the league, stringing long series of passes together to find an opening in the opponent’s defense and put the ball in the back of the net. They’re also strong defensively, with well-drilled pressing triggers that can set an opponent on their heels.
That consistency has been a clear asset to the Reign’s ability to rule the regular season, but Harvey’s players similarly credit their communication structure and steady principles with their ability to execute in the postseason.
“She’s very tactical but also is able to put together a really good group or lineup per game, depending on who shines,” says Emily Sonnett, who has flourished as a holding midfielder for the club after spending most of her professional career as a defender.
She credits the Reign coaching staff with not overcomplicating the game plan, a helpful tool when a player is getting used to a new position: “Laura and the coaching staff have done a really good job of each game [asking] ‘What is actually needed, and can we accomplish that?”
Harvey communicates with the team through her leaders, notably the Reign’s original three of Fishlock, Rapinoe and defender Lauren Barnes.
“She doesn’t really have an ego like that, and really wants that collaboration, and really relies especially on us older players to be her lieutenants out there,” says Rapinoe, who says she wants her final professional game to be a win for her manager almost more than she wants it for herself. “She’s always pulling us in and wanting our opinion, and allowing us the space to be f—ing annoying and ask a million questions all the time. But she empowers us to do that.”
Both the Reign’s desire to win and the tools are clearly there, and have been for years. But the players’ execution of the game plan, Rapinoe says, has let Harvey down in the past more than her own preparation as a coach.
“The thing about Laura, she’s always gonna get up and own the entire loss,” Rapinoe says. “But I think a lot of the knockout games, we’ve just played terrible and haven’t shown up as players.”
“I think being a coach is really difficult,” Huerta echoes. “It’s really hard to have success as a coach, because when the team loses, it’s your fault. [But] the team wins, and the players played amazing. I think it’s hard to be in that position. There’s a lot of turnover, I don’t think a lot of people are on your side. But we’re on Laura’s side. She’s a good coach, she’s really one of the main reasons we’re here.”
Harvey’s principles have guided the Reign to this point, but it’s their newfound ability to play a less beautiful, more punishing style that the team feels could earn them the trophy they’ve long been searching for.
“This year, I don’t think really anybody on the outside envisioned us being in the finals,” says midfielder Rose Lavelle. “And I think we maybe had more of a chip on our shoulder that helped us get here.”
To win an NWSL Championship, the Reign will have to be willing to endure touchy passages of play and lean into their defensive identity against the consistently dangerous Gotham FC attack.
“I think obviously you want entertainment, you want goals, you want flair,” says Cook. “But I think we can make our living on just being solid in that regard and being organized, being hard to break down.”
In other words, it’s possible that this version of OL Reign looks and plays more like a knockout-round winner than any other Reign team in the past. Through injury and absence, they’ve found a toughness that hasn’t always been a part of their identity.
“I think just the overall grit and discipline of the squad this year took a really big step, which is really necessary,” says Rapinoe.
With newfound confidence in their ability to weather the storm, the Reign feel ready to prove they can join the ranks of NWSL champions and forever take the asterisk off the legacy of their manager. Because in the NWSL final, it doesn’t always have to be pretty — you just have to end on a win.
Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.