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What to make of OL Reign’s latest NWSL playoff disappointment

Megan Rapinoe acknowledges the fans after OL Reign's semifinal loss to Kansas City on Sunday. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

“Football’s a little cruel sometimes,” Megan Rapinoe said on Sunday, summing up OL Reign’s 2-0 defeat to the Kansas City Current, their second in as many NWSL semifinals. “I feel like I don’t even really know if we deserve more out of the game.”

The NWSL’s playoff format is something of a hybrid between the traditions of American sports and global football. In other leagues, finishing with the most points at the end of a season is enough for the title and the trophy, while other Cup competitions recreate a knockout tournament structure.

In the NWSL, the Shield is awarded to the team that showed enough consistency to finish at the top of the league table, and the championship trophy is given to the team left standing at the end of the postseason. Rare are the years when both the Shield and the trophy go to the same club: Outside of the North Carolina Courage’s domination in 2018 and 2019, Shield winners falling in the playoffs became so common that there have been jokes of a “Shield Curse.”

OL Reign has a history of excelling at one part of the league’s format and struggling with the other. In 2014 and 2015, the team formerly known as the Seattle Reign were the best in the league two years running, turning Memorial Stadium into a fortress. But they fell in both finals to FC Kansas City and have not returned to an NWSL Championship since.

In 2022, OL Reign’s path to the Shield looked a bit different than those early years when they were dominating the competition. The Reign were always in the playoff conversation, but they caught fire late in the season as the Portland Thorns and San Diego Wave stumbled, surging up the league table. They clinched the Shield during the final weekend of the NWSL regular season, and seemed to have gained enough momentum to make a deep playoff run.

So, what should we make of another semifinal exit? Is the “Shield Curse” real, or is there more to OL Reign’s playoff woes?

It’s not all negative

The environment surrounding the Reign’s semifinal this year vastly contrasted from last year’s matchup against the Washington Spirit. The Reign had the highest attendance for a standalone match ever at Lumen Field on Sunday, doubling their previous record with a crowd of 21,491 fans.

The Reign didn’t always have the benefit of robust community support during their runs to the Shield in 2014 and 2015, nor the access to the facilities that they have now. Earlier this week, the club announced it would be moving from a Tacoma-area high school facility to train full-time at Starfire Stadium in 2023. The continued professionalization in Seattle will be pivotal for one of the league’s original clubs, especially since they’ve proven year over year to be a desirable location for talent.

Head coach Laura Harvey has also done a good job of integrating new talent into a squad known for its veterans. After a number of loans ended following the 2021 season, Jordyn Huitema was a savvy pick-up at striker, and Quinn has been a revelation at defensive midfielder since Harvey’s return. The center-back duo of Alana Cook and Sam Hiatt have worked well with young goalkeeper Phallon Tullis-Joyce to form a stout backline. Harvey has also gotten career-best years out of Rose Lavelle and Sofia Huerta, and she rotated the squad with a deft hand to keep players healthy throughout the regular season.

Despite what feels at times like an effort in futility, the Reign are set up well for the future in more ways than one.

Jess Fishlock and Laura Harvey have been with OL Reign since the NWSL's inception in 2013. (Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images)

How to break the Shield Curse

With Harvey, Megan Rapinoe, Lauren Barnes and Jessica Fishlock carrying the 10-year history of the club into the 2022 playoffs, it’s fair for fans to have wanted more out of this window.

The new playoff format may have played a role in the Reign’s last two exits, with a bye and an international break extending the team’s time off and possibly contributing to rust. There’s also an element of chance involved.

In the 2021 semis, the Reign struggled with quality chances in the attacking third during a rain-soaked slog on a converted baseball field. In 2022, they similarly could not get the final ball to break the plane, with shots in each half partially crossing the goal-line but failing to find the back of the net. They also have come across two of the more playoff-ready teams in as many years (the Spirit famously won the 2021 title on the back of one of the longest unbeaten streaks in NWSL history).

AD Franch was the difference-maker in goal for the Current on Sunday, and Kansas City got the right bounces at the other end. Current forward Kristen Hamilton even had to laugh about her goal in the postgame press conference, describing a broken play influenced by her jogging over to the sideline to receive instruction.

Football is a little cruel, indeed.

But as another year goes by without a championship trophy, one has to wonder if the Reign could use more tactical dexterity in the postseason. OL Reign’s Plan A works more often than not, as evidenced by the best record in the league over 22 games. But when Plans B, C or D are needed, Seattle hasn’t been able to punch through after falling behind.

Maybe the stars simply haven’t aligned, but if the Reign’s original core players are going to go off into the sunset on a high note, the club will have to figure out how to go all-in at the season’s end.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.