Nights like Saturday can be nerve-wracking. When the home side only needs to defeat a struggling opponent to seal multiple accolades, including a first-round playoff bye.
Before a record crowd at Lumen Field, the Reign made it known early the win was theirs and everything that came with it. The eventual 3-0 result against the Orlando Pride secured the NWSL Shield and a first-round bye.
“You can imagine the energy that was in the locker room before the start of the game, just knowing what was on the line,” Reign forward Megan Rapinoe said. “Having everything in our hands is exactly how we wanted it. We wanted to come out and be able to play the game and put our stamp on it and get a goal that has been ours throughout the year. We have a little bit further to go, definitely some unfinished business from our careers, but just an incredibly special night.”
It’s the Reign’s third Shield in the club’s 10-year history, also winning in 2014 and 2015. But the Reign have never won a NWSL championship. They earned a bye last year and lost in the semifinals to the Washington Spirit at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma.
But the team wasn’t demure about Saturday’s significance despite wanting the elusive championship. Although they couldn’t parade the actual Shield around because too many variables made a definitive winner unknown.
Instead, Reign coach Laura Harvey took the mic in front of the Royal Guard supporters’ group and chanted, “We won the league at Lumen Field,” with some other colorful language.
“Winning games in this league is really difficult,” said Harvey, whose club spent about 48 hours at the top and was as low as fifth down the stretch of the 12-team league. “When you do it, you should celebrate it and we celebrated all 11 games like we won the league, [Saturday’s] just lasted a little bit longer.”
The 10,746 gathered Saturday at Lumen had the home side amped beginning with the pregame warm-ups. The club is in its first season at the stadium and the season-finale crowd was the highest this year.
The Reign (11-4-7) received a pair of good results before player introductions were made that coated the path to the Shield in gold.
First, Cascadia rival Portland conceded two late goals to draw 3-3 with NJ/NY Gotham FC in their season finale. Then, Racing Louisville found a goal in second-half extra time to defeat the Kansas City Current, guaranteeing the Reign could finish no lower than second in league standings.
Orlando, which was already eliminated from playoff contention, wanted to play spoiler but forgot to keep a mark on Rapinoe. The striker was open in the box to gather a grounder from Jordyn Huitema and knock in a left-footed shot at the near post for the game’s opening goal in the eighth minute.
Huitema went solo in the 24th minute to shred the Pride’s defense. She received a pinpoint through ball from fellow Canadian international Quinn and took on two Orlando defenders and keeper Erin McLeod to net the goal.
McLeod made a play for the ball too early, Huitema using a right-footed shot to finish the embarrassment. It was Huitema’s second goal of the season.
Rapinoe tag-teamed with midfielder Jess Fishlock to craft the third goal. Once Fishlock was in place in the corner, Rapinoe fed her the ball and the Welsh international used a quick first-touch to get past her defender then sent a cross into the box. Reign forward Bethany Balcer leapt to send the ball past McLeod with her shin guard.
It was Balcer’s seventh goal of the season to tie with Rapinoe for the team lead.
Harvey started making her substitutions in the 60th minute when she pulled captain Lu Barnes for Sofia Huerta. The starting lineup was the 21st different look for Harvey in the club’s 22 matches.
There’s a FIFA international window before the playoffs begin. The U.S. women’s national team — including Rapione, Rose Lavelle, Alana Cook and Huerta — will play friendlies in Europe against England (Oct. 7) and Spain (Oct. 11).
The Reign will hold their semifinal match Oct. 23 at Lumen.
“We’re hitting form at the right time,” Harvey said. “[Saturday] is a good example of what we could’ve done in multiple games this year. … To win [the Shield] on the last day is the best. This league is wild.”