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OL Reign’s original three look to build on their NWSL legacies

Lauren Barnes, Jess Fishlock and Megan Rapinoe will play their 10th season for OL Reign in 2022. (Jane Gershovich/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

OL Reign head coach Laura Harvey is embracing the NWSL preseason with veteran players Megan Rapinoe, Jess Fishlock and Lauren Barnes, because she can’t be sure how many she’ll have left with all three of them after this one.

Rapinoe, 36, said after the Olympics last year that she needed to “take some time to think” about retirement. Last month, she signed a one-year extension with the Reign, raising questions about whether this could be her last year (fiancé and Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird has announced this WNBA season as her farewell tour).

For Barnes, 32, and Fishlock, 35, the question appears further off as they and Rapinoe enter their 10th season with OL Reign. In January, Barnes signed a one-year contract extension and Fishlock a two-year, both of which have options for an extra year. 

The three original franchise players understand what it means to play for the Reign and, during a preseason with many new faces, Harvey can lean on them to set the tone.

“I think that’s their biggest legacy,” the coach said. “This club continues to stick with those standards on and off the field, within the player group, of what’s expected, and these have been setting it for 10 years. They created it, then they set it and then they impart that onto the new ones coming in.”

For Harvey, who also started at the club (then Seattle Reign FC) in 2013, “it’s hard to imagine the club without them,” she said. All three have been named to the NWSL Best XI during their careers, with 2021 NWSL MVP Fishlock earning the honor five times.

“We are 100 percent the product of our environment,” said Barnes, the NWSL’s 2016 Defender of the Year. “I am every single person who’s ever been part of this club — players, staff, playing one minute, to not playing at all, to playing every single minute.”

Barnes leads a steady backline alongside U.S. women’s national team defenders Alana Cook and Sofia Huerta. Kristen McNabb, who started 15 of 21 games for Reign last season, was selected by San Diego Wave FC in the 2022 expansion draft.

“We always hear about outsiders looking in and that they want to be part of the Reign, and I just want to continue that legacy as much as I possibly can and have these younger ones take it over after as the old ones move on eventually,” Barnes said.

That legacy is a conversation Harvey plans to have with Barnes, Rapinoe and Fishlock, but “not yet,” as she exclaimed during Tuesday’s media call.

The group still has an NWSL championship title to win after claiming the NWSL Shield twice, in 2014 and 2015, and finishing as runners-up those same years.

Since falling to the Washington Spirit — the eventual NWSL champions — in last year’s semifinals, the Reign have undergone one of the biggest roster turnovers in their history, signing nine new players in recent weeks.  The upcoming NWSL Challenge Cup will give them a chance to find their chemistry in competitive game settings before the regular season begins in May.

“There’s things around who Lu’s playing with … or whatever it might look like, where we have to find answers on some of the new players that we have,” Harvey said.

With Rapinoe up top, Fishlock in the midfield and Barnes on defense, Harvey has a strong core to build around. The Reign will enter the year with a healthy balance of veterans, younger players and those coming from other teams who are hungry for their shot. The mix creates a team that wants to win now, but also has depth and longevity.

The Reign get an early test, kicking off the Challenge Cup on March 18 against the Portland Thorns.

“It’s the game of our lifetime,” Barnes said of the Reign-Thorns rivalry. “It doesn’t even matter what place you’re in in the league. It’s like, that’s the championship game.

“Being able to pass that history down, that rivalry down to the new girls coming in and people overseas and stuff has been really fun to watch. I’ve had a couple girls come off those games and be like, ‘Best game I ever played.’ And we’re talking about girls who have been to World Cups.”

The game will also serve as OL Reign’s 2022 home debut at Lumen Field in Seattle, Wash., home to the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks and MLS’ Seattle Sounders. While hosting games at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma for three years, the Reign played their first match at Lumen last August against Portland, winning 2-1 in front of an NWSL-record 27,278 fans.

The move to Lumen marks the beginning of a new era for the Reign, and Barnes, Rapinoe and Fishlock are ready to lead the way.

“The club’s going in an exciting direction in regards to playing at Lumen, which is a huge step for us and I think the three of them,” Harvey said. “I was really excited for the three of them to have that opportunity because they deserve it.”

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.