A stretch of eight minutes proved calamitous for OL Reign.
Playing away against the Chicago Red Stars, the Reign entered halftime with a 1-0 lead after controlling the run of play for most of the first half. Touting a defense which hadn’t conceded in more than 135 minutes, and playing a Chicago team which hadn’t scored during the run of play since June 5, the Reign’s lead seemed like vindication of the team’s training and improving chemistry.
“We just have a little bit more clarity right now on what we’re doing and what we want to do, and I think you can see that in the way we’re trying to play,” midfielder Jess Fishlock said. “We just have to stop conceding really (expletive) goals.”
A brutal spell starting in the 47th minute resulted in two own goals for the Chicago Red Stars, who used the momentum to beat the Reign 3-1. It’s the Reign’s fourth loss in its past five games, and keeps the club in ninth place in the NWSL on 10 points.
Sam Laity, still serving as interim head coach while Laura Harvey fulfills her duties with the United States Women’s National Team at the Olympics, put the team’s second half collapse on himself and the coaching staff.
“The three goals we conceded were a disaster,” he said. “Goals change games. The momentum changed. That put us on the backfoot, that put them on the front foot.”
A Celia yellow card in the 47th minute foreshadowed the incoming disaster. Just one minute later, while chasing Chicago’s Mal Pugh down the right touchline to protect a one-goal lead, the Spanish right back lunged in to block the World Cup winner’s cross.
Instead, the ball bounced off Celia’s shin, and looped over Reign goalkeeper Sarah Bouhaddi to level the game. Seven minutes later, a goalmouth scramble following a Pugh corner ricocheted off Reign center back Alanna Cook and into the goal to give the Red Stars a 2-1 lead they wouldn’t return. All three of the Red Stars’ goals came after the Reign was forced to take off defender Sam Hiatt at halftime due to injury.
“She’s a true central defender,” Laity said. “She reads the game well, she’s good on the ball, she can get up and above attackers to head the ball, she can stop center forwards from turning, she’s just a true defender. I think that was a massive loss that she came out.”
While the final score ended up rather lopsided, the Reign dominated most of the first half. Sticking with the same starting lineup which beat Kansas City, Laity was rewarded after just 12 minutes, with Bethany Balcer proving she might be the most in-form striker in the NWSL.
Leading the line for OL Reign, Balcer entered Sunday’s match against the Chicago Red Stars coming off a brace in the team’s 2-0 win against Kansas City. A throw-in on the right side was taken by Celia, who tossed the ball to midfielder Dzenifer Marozsan. The German held off her defender, before playing it back to Celia in space near the right touchline.
The right back crossed the ball into the box first time, and Balcer, floating off the shoulder of Red Stars’ defender, made a short run into the box and slotted home from 6 yards out to give the Reign a 1-0 lead. It’s her third goal in her past two games.
Balcer’s goal was the foundation for a strong first half showing by the Reign. Cook and Sam put in a commanding performance in the heart of the defense, with Celia and Lauren Barnes pushing up well from the fullback positions. Marozsan and Jess Fishlock also dictated the tempo in the midfield pivot, while Tziarra King and Sofia Huerta looked lively in attack.
King and Marozsan created the Reign’s other best chances in the first half, setting up a blocked Fishlock chance, while King also put a few shots on target herself.
“I think our first-half performance was great,” Fishlock said. “We should have killed the game off in the first half and maybe lacked a little bit of quality when we needed it most. I don’t think we need to go and change the world here, I think we just need to work on how we react to things when they don’t go our way.”
The end result though, put a damper on any improvements the Reign made. Laity lamented the team’s inability to finish its first-half chances, as well as the team’s lack of a response once Red Stars leveled the score.
“In the first half, we weren’t good enough with the ball,” he said. “I felt we got the ball into some very, very dangerous areas that could have hurt Chicago and we didn’t do enough with it.”
After its own goals and some second-half adjustments from the Red Stars, the Reign struggled to get back in the game and adapt. Amber Brooks, Hiatt’s substitute, was spun by Pugh for Chicago’s third goal. Despite only managing two shots on target in the entire game and only having 40% possession, the Red Stars scored three goals to condemn the Reign to a loss.
“I think it comes back down to getting back out on the pitch and watching the film, and seeing where things broke down,” King said. “Discussing how we can be better, and as a team rallying together, not letting this damper our spirits and keep moving forward.”
The Reign continues its road trip next week with a visit to Florida, where it takes on title frontrunners Orlando Pride on Saturday. Kickoff is scheduled for 4 p.m.