Jess Fishlock had options.
Leading the break for OL Reign, with her team up 3-1 just before halftime against the Houston Dash, Fishlock was surrounded by goal scorers.
On her right, she had French forward Eugenie Le Sommer, who had scored in the 35th minute. Or, Fishlock could play to Sofia Huerta, who had space on the left and had already struck home in the 19th minute. Bethany Balcer, who headed in a goal in the sixth minute, led the line in front of Fishlock, hovering between the Dash center backs waiting for someone to slide a pass through for her.
Fishlock decided to call her own number. About 25 yards from the goal with no one near her, the midfielder looked up and struck the ball perfectly, placing it into the top left corner just beyond the reach of Houston goalkeeper Lindsey Harris.
“I hope that they have a shot of my face when she scored because I was like, ‘Oh my God,’” Huerta said. “Anytime Jess can take a shot from there you can’t be mad right? Even if she doesn’t score she has a good shot and you want your players to take that shot but it was a banger for sure, such a good goal.”
Fishlock’s goal was part of a five-goal, first-half barrage by the OL Reign on Saturday night as it wrapped up the 5-1 win in just 45 minutes. It’s the team’s third consecutive win, and its fourth in five games as the team has gone from second to the bottom straight into a playoff spot.
Saturday was also the first time the Reign has hit four goals or more since a 4-1 win against Gotham FC in April 2018. The match also offered a chance to analyze the impact of interim coach Sam Laity. The last time the Dash and the Reign met, he had been installed as the new leader of the team just two hours before a 2-0 loss.
Playing in front of new coach Laura Harvey, who attended the game after returning from Tokyo with the U.S. women’s national team and didn’t want to interfere with match preparation, Laity’s team dominated. And though he will return to his assistant role Monday, both Huerta and Balcer praised him for turning the team around.
“Sam’s given us a lot of freedom to do what we do best,” Huerta said. “I really think he’s just opened it up to us and let us figure things out and he’s been really good at just guiding us and kind of just given this team it’s identity back. We’ve all bought into that, we’ve bought into the culture and the system here and I think that’s why we’re finally starting to see some results.”
It didn’t take long for the Reign to prove its standing as one of the most in-form team in the NWSL. Balcer, making her first start since July 18, justified her selection quickly, heading home from short range after a looped ball from Fishlock found her near the back post. Balcer, whose fourth goal of the season puts her joint-third in the NWSL, said she didn’t train well in the week leading up to Saturday’s game, but was glad to reward Laity’s faith in her abilities.
“It’s just been an up and down year,” she said. “It’s hard to stay mentally sharp all the time but when the team’s having success you can’t really complain. Whether I’m coming off the bench or starting, I want my attitude to be the same and I want to be a goal scorer, that’s my job as the nine, so it definitely felt great to really take the wind out of their sails in the first six minutes.”
Thirteen minutes later, Huerta smashed home against an open goal after an extra pass from Le Sommer found her alone at the back post.
The Dash clawed a goal back after a shot from Shea Groom glanced off Reign defender Alana Cook, wrong footing goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi for an own goal. It was the first score surrendered by the Reign defense in more than 210 minutes, going back to the team’s 3-1 defeat against the Chicago Red Stars on July 18. Three of the team’s last four goals conceded have been self inflicted.
But the Reign quickly crushed any hope of a comeback. A goal mouth scramble was turned in by Le Sommer, restoring the team’s two-goal cushion, her third goal in her past two games. Laity said that moment was the game-changer, praising Le Sommer’s determination to get the ball across the line.
“When we went to 2-0, that was the sloppiest moment for us, and at that point I wasn’t happy,” he said. “I think if anything, the goal Houston scored woke us up a little bit.”
Fishlock’s long distance strike made it 4-1 in the 42nd minute, before Balcer secured her brace in the first minute of first-half stoppage time.
The second half was merely a formality as the Reign gave some of its less experienced players a runout and the Dash simply tried to keep the score line respectable, but Laity said there were things the team can improve on before it’s next game.
“We will file away the three points and take those, especially in this league,” he said. “But we will also spend a lot of time focusing on the areas we have to get better on. We’re not going to rest on our laurels and just be happy that we won.”
The Reign next hits the road, heading to Kansas City for a 5 p.m. kickoff Saturday. Depending on the result between the Orlando Pride and the Chicago Red Stars on Monday, the Reign’s 19 points may be enough to keep it in fifth, one spot above the final playoff spot.