OL Reign’s 2022 season could be described as a rollercoaster full of highs and lows. The team won their third NWSL Shield and earned a No. 1 seed in the NWSL playoffs, reflecting the consistent excellence the club has come to be known for since the early days of the league.
But once again, they failed to win the biggest honor of all, falling in their second consecutive semifinal after finishing in the top two in the league standings, this time to the Kansas City Current. The Reign have always represented the dichotomy of the difficult task in front of NWSL clubs: Sometimes the consistency that gives you a season-long edge becomes exploitable in the win-or-go-home playoffs.
The Reign have yet to hoist the NWSL trophy at the end of the postseason despite having one of the most talented rosters in the league. Is this the year the original Reign trio of Megan Rapinoe, Lauren Barnes and Jess Fishlock finish a season on a win?
Part of what made the Reign’s inability to reach the finish line in 2022 so confounding is they appeared to be peaking at exactly the right time. The team’s Shield win was less a reflection of complete season dominance, and more an opportunity seized at the last minute.
Portland was in pole position for a back-to-back Shield title before dropping crucial points in the final weekend of the regular season. OL Reign, with momentum behind them, grabbed the chance to finish at the top of the table and looked like they had more in the tank for a postseason run.
But then, the same issues that have plagued the Reign for years popped up in their semifinal matchup against the Current. The Reign are experts at moving the ball, controlling games through possession and finding clinical ways to create chances on goal. They arguably are the golden standard for possessive-style football in the NWSL, with a consistency underlined by talent and experience.
Despite the strong build-up play, the Reign had a hard time finishing those chances. The club hit the woodwork more than any other NWSL team in 2022, and while the addition of Canada forward Jordyn Huitema midseason helped, they came up short again in the knockout game. The Reign out-shot, out-passed, out-possessed and held a huge advantage on set pieces in their semifinal, and still saw their season disappear in a disappointing 2-0 loss to Kansas City.
“It’s so tough because you look back on the year, and we had a really good year,” midfielder Rose Lavelle told reporters in preseason. “We won the Shield and that’s hard. That’s like a product of the whole season. But then I think to finish on that last game hurt us all.”
Despite the disappointing finish, the Reign’s approach to the 2023 offseason was about consistency. Top free agents Rapinoe and Barnes both decided to re-sign with the club — ”It would have taken a catastrophe, most likely, for me to actually leave,” Rapinoe said — and head coach Laura Harvey made strategic additions elsewhere.
“Having the group predominantly back together again was a priority,” Harvey said. As a result, the Reign head into the 2023 season looking very similar to their Shield-winning squad.
The Reign did take the opportunity to sign USWNT defender Emily Sonnett on draft day, after the Washington Spirit offered her in a trade. They also picked up second-year forward Elyse Bennett from Kansas City, bolstering a frontline that will need dynamicism when players are away for the 2023 World Cup.
“Adding someone of [Sonnett’s] quality and experience and knowing how to win in this league could be really vital for us, and adding some depth in our frontline was also a priority to us and obviously [Bennett] fits that mold,” said Harvey. The coach noted that the team didn’t bring in rookies in large numbers, instead focusing on players with track records and the ability to acclimate to the Reign’s style of play.
Harvey also has the ebbs and flows of the international calendar in mind: “We’re constantly looking at, is this the roster that we have for the whole year? Is this something that we can take through to the World Cup, and then we have to manipulate the roster a little bit during the World Cup? And then, what does it look like after the World Cup?
“I sort of think, in World Cup years, you’ve always got those things going around in your mind. But it all started with making sure that we kept the majority of the group together from last year.”
The goal in 2023 remains the same as in past years: The Reign expect to compete for an NWSL championship.
“We have just such a talented, young squad. We kind of have all the pieces in place to be really good for a very long time and I think with the foundation of our culture and just how we are here, it could be one of the most attractive places in the world, not just the NWSL,” Rapinoe said.
“But we need to keep building and keep pushing and keep striving and making sure that everything off the pitch is just as good as what’s on the pitch.”
The Reign played preseason games in California, heading to warmer weather as many other clubs did before the season, and will be training at Starfire Sports in 2023 and beyond. While the group has always had a strong locker-room culture, upgrades in resources have proven to be key during a grueling NWSL season, and the Reign are taking steps to keep up with the top clubs in the league.
On the field, the squad is leaning into what’s worked for them in the past, with the intention of making the final push when it matters most.
“The vibes are always so good, and I think I’ve never been on a team like this that it’s just so good and wholesome,” Lavelle said. “It’s such a great group, and I think it makes it so easy to come in and get the job done. I think we’re all on the same page with everything and it’s fun.”
Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.