Editorial — Reign FC clinched the final playoff spot in a tight race last weekend. The club notched three points over Cascadia rival Portland to secure the fourth and final spot. Reign FC prevented heading into another week of uncertainty.
Up until last weekend, there was a three-way battle for the last playoff spot. For a moment, it looked like the Utah Royals were going to take the final, fourth spot. However, the Washington Spirit jumped on ship with a win over North Carolina. Then, Reign FC took down Portland.
All of this happened while Utah lost to the Reign and then added a consecutive loss against the Chicago Red Stars. They were officially out of the picture.
With the Reign’s victory, all four playoff teams from last season are back in the hunt for the championship. Last year, though, the Portland Thorns took over the second-place spot, meaning they could host a semifinal match. Instead, the Red Stars are in that spot this year. With Portland’s loss to their regional rival, Chicago earned the right to host their semifinal.
Meanwhile, the North Carolina Courage have won the NWSL Shield once again. This isn’t just an impressive back-to-back feat for the defending champions. Instead, it’s a three-time consecutive title for the Courage.
So, who’s going to win it all this year?
North Carolina is locked at No. 1 and Chicago sits right behind them at No. 2. However, there’s one more match for the Reign and Thorns. If Portland wins or draws in their match against the Washington Spirit on Saturday, they’ll claim the No. 3 spot. However, if Portland loses and Reign FC defeats the Orlando Pride, then Reign moves up to third place.
.@ReignFC's Bethany Balcer, you are RIDICULOUS 🔥
Rookie of the year? 👀 pic.twitter.com/P75OPcTpby
— ESPN Player (@espnplayer) September 30, 2019
Prediction: Reign leaps over Portland
In a perfect world, the Portland Thorns FC will lose on Saturday.
To be honest, I’m afraid to see, for the third year in a row, the same final. Last year was somewhat amusing, watching the North Carolina Courage extract revenge on the Thorns. However, for a third year? There needs to be a little more diversity. Reign FC is the team that can make that happen.
Reign FC is continuing their leaps and bounds season. There have been points where the club’s injury list has reached 10 or more players. Casey Murphy, in all technicality, is the Reign’s third-string goalkeeper. She’ll likely be their starter in the upcoming seasons, but she wasn’t even on the roster until May.
ACL injuries have been a major buzzkill for this team. Jasmyne Spencer hasn’t featured at all this year due to one. Jaycie Johnson and Jess Fishlock saw their seasons cut short because of the injury. Fishlock was having one of her better seasons, too. When she returned from Lyon, the Wales native scored three goals in five matches.
There have been other injuries too — a real laundry list of them. However, adding to the injury list was the absence of Megan Rapinoe. The two-time FIFA Women’s World Cup champion didn’t even make her season debut until September 8.
That is unheard of in sports — especially soccer.
However, Rapinoe isn’t even the buzz about this team. Instead, it’s the youth that has carried the Reign this season. In addition to Murphy, Bethany Balcer is aiming for her first NWSL title — and also the NWSL Rookie of the Year award. Balcer scored the game-winning goal against Portland, adding to a tally from Jodie Taylor. Coming from an NAIA school and not NCAA, Balcer is a prodigy and a Cinderella story.
She’s scored six goals and has featured in 23 matches this season.
Relive our third win over Portland in 2019, epic tifo, and goals from Taylor and Balcer.#ShePlaysHere #BeBold pic.twitter.com/BWb48y7dnK
— OL Reign (@OLReign) October 1, 2019
So why can Reign FC win?
The talent is clearly there, and the depth is even greater.
Also, you have to give some props to coach Vlatko Andonovski. His name has been circling around the U.S. Soccer world for a couple months now as a potential successor to Jill Ellis. However, there is no clear indication to if he will be rewarded the job yet. His players have come out to praise him, including Allie Long giving him her nod of approval.
To manage a team with an absolutely mangled roster of injuries is impressive. Andonovski is almost like a wizard with his roster. He said that every game has been a battle for Reign FC in a not-so-secret injury riddled season.
“Every game was a battle,” Andonovski said, via The Bold. “Every training was a battle. We always said that there were so many small question marks: ‘who’s going to play? Who’s not going to play? How long are they going to play?’ I’m so proud of this group. I can’t even tell you how proud I am of the way that they were handling the whole situation.”
Rapinoe said that looking at the team’s official club photo was like looking at a scroll.
“How many people are there?” Rapinoe said. “To have not only that amount injuries and people gone for the World Cup, but to have that many people come through and perform being thrown in, whether they’re here for a little bit or they played a lot of minutes, it’s a huge credit to the club and the coaching staff, in particular.”
“It would have really been easy for this thing to go totally off the rails.”
With the win Reign FC are back in the NWSL playoffs. pic.twitter.com/sAqsWUC0Yk
— OL Reign (@OLReign) September 29, 2019
Reign FC vs. North Carolina?
This would be the final of the century.
In one end of the ring, you have the Courage who have been so dominant this season. Listen, it’s not like last season. The Courage haven’t won all of their matches and haven’t only kept a loss record of one game. However, the Courage are the top team in the league. Putting up six goals against Orlando was something, but at the end of the day, they did it against a last-place team.
Now, putting up six goals against the Thorns? That’s something special.
The Courage have the chance to go back to another final. With home field advantage in the semifinals and in the championship, there’s no reason why the Courage shouldn’t make it back to the final. However, Reign FC is not a push-over team. Reign FC picked up a victory against the Courage once this year, but fell twice in the last two meetings.
Andonovski is a great coach, but so is Paul Riley. Seeing both coaches go against each other in the final would genuinely be a real treat.