OL Reign are expected to open training camp Tuesday to begin preparations for the NWSL’s historic 10th season. The league hasn’t released its full schedule but will open with the third annual Challenge Cup that will run March 19 through May 7. A 22-match regular season will conclude with a championship game in October.
The NWSL will feature 12 clubs, onboarding Los Angeles’ Angel City FC and the San Diego Wave FC.
The Reign return the core of the team that helped them finish second in the table last year, including 2021 league MVP Jess Fishlock.
The Welsh international, who turned 35 this month, re-signed last week through 2023 with a club option for an additional year. The Times spoke with Fishlock about a variety of topics including how a 2019 knee injury rejuvenated her decadelong professional career, the tumultuous 2021 NWSL season and her plans to use her voice to instill change in women’s soccer.
The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: You’ve mentioned going on loan in August 2020 to English side Reading — which is about a two-hour drive from your native Cardiff in Wales — gave you a “new lease on life” because you were contemplating retirement following a 13-month rehab after suffering an ACL and double meniscus tear in June 2019. What was special about that eight-month stint?
A: I haven’t been home since I left home as a kid. It was a lot less pressure. I had to see if I could play again to the level I wanted to play at and there was no pressure on that because everybody knew I was coming back from my knee injury. (Due to COVID) we were in a three-month, complete lockdown. I only had an exemption because we were playing football. I got to spend a lot of time at home, which was really nice. It helped me personally and from a football perspective. I had my family around me and haven’t had that kind of feedback in a very long time.
Q: Does winning MVP affirm that growth?
A: When you’re in this environment, you’re so pressurized in doing what you need to do to win. Developing your game goes on the back burner. Whereas back home I was able to focus solely on what my game looked like rather than winning for that eight months. I had the time to build up from my knee and I guess I haven’t had that for a long time. All of that together with being home and spending time with family, adding that new dynamic to my life. It just made my life better. So, winning MVP was great for me, but in a different way. It wasn’t ‘Oh, my football’s great.’ It wasn’t that. It solidified the decision that I made. People on the outside were like, ‘Oh, I don’t know about this (loan). What’s she doing?’ It was nice for me to know that I made the right decisions. It’s great to win MVP, but for me it was more like a personal achievement rather than a football one.
Q: So, is that booming, 40-yard score in the win against Chicago at Cheney Stadium in October an example of new parts to your game? You finished the season with five goals and four assists.
A: Exactly. A couple years ago I probably wouldn’t have done that, and I wouldn’t have taken those kinds of shots on. It’s funny because when I was playing at home, my family would watch and be like, ‘Why don’t you shoot anymore? Is that a lost part of your game?’ To be fair, at Reading I played a lot deeper (as a midfielder). But it sat in the back of my brain that maybe I wasn’t shooting because I didn’t feel like I was ready for that. When I came back to the Reign, I was like no, if I have a chance, I’m just going to pop. Like I said, it was nice to go through those barriers and have my family there watching. I didn’t realize that was a block of mine that I needed to get through and obviously did successfully. That was fun because as soon as that happened, my dad texted me and said, ‘I told you. That’s all you needed to do.’ It’s nice to be able to go through that with people who’ve known you since, you know my family have watched me play football my whole life. It was nice to have them be a part of my comeback.
Q: Is re-signing with the Reign tied to the effort to qualify Wales for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup? You’re the most capped player in national team history.
A: Nobody has ever gone through trying to play through a pandemic and that has changed a lot of people’s approach to things and mindsets. Throw my age in that and the Welsh qualifiers in that. It’s never a straightforward decision. Do I want to finish at home? Do I still think I can do this at my age? I definitely feel I can be at the level I’m at for a couple more years, which is super important. It’s a perfect fit holistically.
Q: How did last season’s fallout from allegations of abuse and neglect by coaches and executives factor into your return? The NWSL Players Association still hasn’t reached an agreement for a new collective-bargaining agreement with the league.
A: There’s been a big shift and I want to be active in that change rather than, ‘what you did is wrong, and I don’t want to be part of it anymore.’ I don’t think that’s helpful either.
Q: Women in sports aren’t often respected. Does OL Groupe’s (the Reign’s parent company) deal to have Lumen Field as your home pitch show respect?
A: It’s such a complex conversation. At the very bare minimum, we should have the facilities that allow us to do what we need to do to the best of our ability. Women’s sport globally, you can’t say we’re there because we’re not. People think we just want money. No, the respect comes from well, you wouldn’t have a men’s elite team and ask them to perform at the highest level but not give them what they need to try and do that. That’s what we get asked to do all the time. Because I’m of the same belief as everybody else that watches women’s soccer that it’s going to take off. But we’re never going to be able to do that if we don’t have the bare minimums. You’re going to have a team that peaks and then that team is going to drop off. It’ll never be an across the board growth of clubs if we don’t put in the structure to allow us to do that. That’s where I want to really prioritize my voice. And not just for the Reign, globally. I’ve been fighting for that with the Wales national team for a long time and we’ve got brand-new contracts and our own base (Vale Resort). We’ve never had that.
Q: This is your 10th season with the Reign along with club originals Megan Rapinoe and Lu Barnes. Have y’all started to think about your collective legacy?
A: Our role will change into helping the youngsters come through and have their longevity with the Reign. We haven’t done that before. We want to win a championship. I’m going to put that out there (but) mentally, I’m going to have an active role in making sure I can help the young ones.