Friday night, it didn’t matter that the Reign were without eight players on international duty. It didn’t matter that they started slowly against the North Carolina Courage due to the lineup shifts, or that they hadn’t scored more than one goal in their last seven consecutive games.
Bethany Balcer found Jess Fishlock for a 52nd-minute goal, and then the two reversed roles in the 74th minute to add the Reign’s second for a 2-0 win, and three points.
On the first, Fishlock timed her run to perfection, getting in behind the Courage defense and taking one touch to both control Balcer’s precise pass and beat the Courage goalie. From there, she walked the ball into the net as a Lumen Field crowd of 7,519, the largest in club history for a standalone match (not counting doubleheaders with the Sounders) cheered. Fishlock laughed postgame that it felt like she hadn’t scored since 2010.
On the second, Fishlock received the ball at the top of the box and located Balcer’s run. The forward used her first and only touch to score. “They were both quite similar goals,” Fishlock said.
Against NC Courage (2-5-1, 7 points), the NWSL’s last-place team, the Reign (4-2-4, 16 points) entered Friday night’s contest unbeaten at home, and they hadn’t conceded a goal at home since May 8. Despite the depleted squad, they extended both those streaks.
“Our group is not a starting 11 type of team, we are a squad, we have huge depth,” Fishlock said. “We’ve been preparing for this kind of situation since the beginning of the season.”
Among the eight Reign players absent were Megan Rapinoe (U.S.), Rose Lavelle (U.S.), Alana Cook (U.S.) and Quinn (Canada). Earlier Friday, the White House also announced that Rapinoe will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Thursday, considered the highest civilian honor.
On the field, the Reign did have new signing Kim Little available for the first time this year. Little played for the Reign from 2014-16, making 63 regular season appearances and adding 32 goals and 16 assists. She was the team’s leading goal scorer in 2014 and 2015 and was the league MVP in 2014. She’s currently with the Reign on loan from Arsenal.
In the first half, the Reign started slowly. It took 16 minutes of play to register their first shot, which came on an ambitious long shot from Balcer that sailed wide. At one point, Fishlock raised her arms when she wanted teammates to play her a long ball and switch the field, but the Reign couldn’t because of NC’s pressure.
“We were slow at the beginning, but personally I thought that was always going to happen with all the changes … and new people in, I think that’s to be expected,” Fishlock said. “All in all, I don’t think we could ask for anything better today.”
The Courage were more dominant in the early portion of the first half. They repeatedly threatened down the right and left flanks. The Courage’s Kerolin Nicoli was wide open inside the 6-yard-box for a header but couldn’t convert the seventh-minute chance.
Seconds later, she had a right-footed shot from the left side of the box that went straight to Reign goalkeeper Phallon Tullis-Joyce. Nicoli later beat the Reign’s center back with a clever move but shot the one-on-one chance just wide of the net.
The Reign weren’t as good defensively early on, head coach Laura Harvey said, but they settled down as the first half went on. They started to press farther forward, connecting more passes in the final third of the field. The ambitious, long-range shots that they fired early developed into more quality chances. By the end of the first half, they had eight shots compared to the Courage’s five.
Fishlock had the best chance of the half when Little found an excellent cross on the ground to tee up the Reign’s No. 10. Fishlock’s shot was right on the mark, but the Courage’s goalie made an even better, fingertip save to deflect the shot just over the crossbar.
Little made her presence felt in her return, connecting semi-dangerous passes that helped dissect the Courage’s defense. She was active, regularly seeking the ball. Little, who arrived Wednesday in Seattle after visa issues, was substituted for Nikki Stanton at halftime.
“There’s probably only one player in the world that could do what Kim’s done in the last 72 hours,” Harvey said. “Never trained with these players before, never been a part of this group. Give us a week of training together with her, and I think it’ll be scary what you can see.”
The Reign continued that offensive momentum immediately in the second half when Tziarra King used a cutback move to send her defender flying by her. She forced a close-range save from the Courage goalie.
And finally, seven minutes after halftime, the breakthrough came for the Reign via Fishlock’s goal, her second NWSL goal of the year. Harvey said the team worked on taking advantage of space with those types of through balls and runs at practice during the week.
From there, the Reign continued to threaten on the counter attack and were more keen to sit back and defend with the lead. They got their security goal with just over 15 minutes remaining to improve to four wins and two ties at home.
“There were parts of our game today where [we] showed glimpses of what we’re trying to do, whether we have the eight players that were missing, or whether we have the group that we have now,” Fishlock said.
- On Friday morning, the Reign also announced three new signings: defenders Ryanne Brown, Eli Burris (formerly played five seasons for the Reign as Eli Reed) and Jodi Ulkekul as national team player replacements. Brown and Reed were substitutes for Friday’s match, but neither appeared.