SEATTLE: Three goals from strikers Megan Rapinoe, Jordyn Huitema and Bethany Balcer set Lumen Field rejoicing last Saturday night, as OL Reign claimed the NWSL Shield for the third time in their ten-year history before a record standalone crowd of 10,746, pipping west coast rivals Portland Thorns to the post.
The Shield is awarded to the team with the most points at the end of the regular season. The Thorns, one point ahead of the Reign, were the favourites to win it, leading the NWSL standings before their Saturday game against New York/New Jersey’s Gotham FC, who finish at the bottom of the table after a dismal season.
However, a surprising burst of never-say-die energy from Gotham saw them score their first goal in 527 minutes to lead the Thorns. The Thorns recovered and claimed a 2-1 lead before half-time, but Gotham rallied and levelled the final score at 3-3, denying them a crucial 3 points. Captain Michelle Betos commented afterwards that she thought the Shield might be awarded to Portland after the game, and that her team didn’t want the west coasters “celebrating in Gotham’s back yard”.
The Reign just needed a win to take the Shield and delivered a decisive, exultant performance to cap a searing late-season run, sealing the deal in the first half. Undefeated in nine back-to-back games, the Seattle team have turned 2022 around after a shaky start.
Megan Rapinoe has been a crucial part of that story, with 7 goals in 8 consecutive season games. She scored the opener at 8 minutes, set up by young Canadian star Jordyn Huitema. Huitema followed up at 24 minutes, and Bethany Balcer buried the visitors’ hopes in the 31st minute. Balcer and Rapinoe both lead the club in season goals, on seven apiece. The rest of the game was a finessed exercise in keeping the frustrated Orlando at bay and reaching the finish line, with coach Laura Harvey scaling the capo stand after the game to bellow a victory chant at the supporters’ section.
“We spent a total of 48 hours at the top of the table all season,” Harvey said afterwards. “To win it on the last day is just wild, but this league’s the best. [In] what league in the world could the winner be debated on the last day of the season?”
Rapinoe was presented with a framed jersey before kick-off to mark her 100th NWSL season game, joined by midfielder Quinn, celebrating 50 games, and defender Sofia Huerta, now on 150 games.
Seattle Storm legend Sue Bird was also honoured before the game, the retired point guard leading fans in a ‘Scarves Up’ moment before kick-off.
The Shield win nets each Reign player a $10,000 bonus, which sponsor CarMax doubled from the league CBA’s mandated $5,000. The CBA in itself is a new structural development for the league, thrashed out by the NWSL Players’ Association to improve pay and conditions across the league.
The Reign’s first-place finish also gives them a bye and home-field advantage in the NWSL Championship playoffs, along with second-place Portland. They go straight to the semi-finals in three weeks, taking on either Houston Dash or Kansas City Current, ahead of the Championship on October 29th in Washington, D.C. The club have announced that, for the semi-final, they will open the entire lower level of their monster 70,000-seater stadium for the first time, aiming to sell up to 30,000 tickets. The club moved to Lumen Field a year ago, an ambitious upgrade from their 5,000-strong crowds in neighbouring Tacoma.
Before then, the NWSL goes on international break, with four Reign players called up to US international duty. Rapinoe, midfielder Rose Lavelle and defenders Huerta and Alana Cook are in Europe, where they lost 2-1 to the England Lionesses before they take on Spain on Tuesday the 11th. Quinn and Jordyn Huitema helped Canada to a 2-0 win over Argentina and will take on Morocco on Monday. Jess Fishlock scored a goal for Wales against Bosnia and Herzegovina in extra time to take Wales a step closer to qualifying for the World Cup; they face Switzerland on Tuesday.
OL Reign play at Lumen Field on October 23. Tickets are on general sale now.