OL Reign: The NWSL’s sleeper team of 2021

OL Reign Crest

One team that was not on the radar to make the NWSL playoffs was the OL Reign. Not only did they clinch a spot in the playoffs, but they were also able to advance into the semifinals automatically. 

During the last few months, OL Reign have gone through many forms. A coaching change in August, coupled with several new international stars finding their footing, meant the team had some obstacles to overcome. In the end, these were minor footnotes in their march to the No. 2 seed with an end-of-season record of 13–3–8 and 42 points.

Early in the season, critics came out of the woodwork as multiple losses piled on the Reign. As criticism came from all angles, several Reign players directly addressed the negative feedback on social media.

Fishlock’s tweet alone illustrates the mentality within the Reign camp. It’s a mindset that helps players hone in on the long-term goals of a season that lasts several months. This display of mental endurance strengthens the bond of the team when such criticism could easily dismember any motivation.

Mid-year reinforcements

A boost of momentum arrived when the French invasion transpired. The club started loaning in players from their sister club, French giants Olympique Lyonnais. Dzsenifer Marozsán, Sarah Bouhaddi, and Eugénie Le Sommer had a quick impact.

OL Reign’s composed style of play gradually intensified and the results started coming their way. They became a rejuvenated force. Once stuck towards the bottom of the league table, they were now in the hunt to clinch a place in the NWSL playoffs.

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A familiar leader

Another momentous occasion this season for the Reign was the return of head coach Laura Harvey. No stranger to the Reign, Harvey’s first coaching stint at the club began in 2013. She led the club to two NWSL Shield triumphs in 2014 and 2015 before stepping down in 2017.

With Harvey back at the helm, the Reign posted a record of 7–2–2 and climbed up the league standings. Because of this positive impact on the squad, Harvey recently extended her contract at the club until 2023. This vote of confidence shows that the team has faith in their success moving forward.

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Player spotlight: Bethany Balcer

Even with the boost of prolific international players, OL Reign’s success isn’t possible without the help of its core players. These are individuals who endured the ups and, more importantly, the downs of the 2021 season. One player in particular that has really brought the Reign its winning edge is Bethany Balcer.

Balcer was one to watch when she first entered the league back in 2019. That season, she was named the 2019 NWSL Rookie of the Year. Yet, with the pandemic striking the following year, her true stride had not emerged until this season.

Coming from the NAIA, Balcer has had the run of a lifetime with no signs of slowing down. Being an athlete from the small collegiate conference, she had to do more to be noticed. Dedication and hard work are just two words to describe what Balcer did to accomplish all that she had to get an opportunity to play in the NWSL.

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Balcer finished tied for second place in the race for the NWSL Golden Boot with nine goals. Notorious for her dinky shots and headers, spectators can expect to see Balcer providing more noteworthy goals in the semi final match.

A newfound leader on and off the pitch, Balcer has become a household name in the States. Her attitude towards mental health makes her a relatable voice in women’s sports. Through her blog, Balcer addresses topics associated with day-to-day struggles like anxiety and depression, faith, body image, and politics.

To top it all off, Balcer received her second International call up on November 9 when USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski named his squad for two friendlies against Australia set to take place on November 26 and 30. While Balcer was previously called into a 2019 winter camp, she has yet to make her senior national team debut. Thus, a call-up of this kind is a huge accomplishment that she very much deserves. 

Playoff outlook

After a first-round bye, OL Reign will enter the 2021 NWSL playoffs for the semis on Sunday, November 14. They face Washington Spirit, a difficult opponent they encountered just a few weeks ago. That game ended as a 0–2 loss for the Reign, which Harvey’s side will look to amend during Sunday’s meeting.

As the sleeper team of the 2021 NWSL season, it’s easy to assume OL Reign are the underdogs. Yet, you best believe they’ll fight like champions in the playoffs. In the end, you won’t want to miss these remaining NWSL playoff matches.

OL Reign will play against the Washington Spirit on Sunday, November 14 at 12:00 p.m. PT. The game will air live on CBS Sports Network for US-based viewers and on Twitch for international viewers.

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