With three big names joining OL Reign in the next month – Kim Little, Tobin Heath, and Jordyn Huitema – competition for playing time is bound to get a little tighter. Little is a former NWSL MVP and standout at Arsenal, Heath is a two-time World Cup winner and Olympic Gold medalist, and Huitema recently won Olympic Gold with Canada.
While fans may be understandably nervous about what impact this could have on the locker room, with some players potentially losing minutes, OL Reign is fortunate to have a head coach in Laura Harvey who has created an environment that is focused on individual development and a team -first mentality.
“I think that being honesty and being upfront with the players and telling them the truth – and you know, not sugarcoating too many things – is the way that I tend to always be just generally in life,” Harvey said when asked about how she balances roster decisions as these big names join the club. “I treat everybody pretty much the same. I think we have an environment where the players feel comfortable to be who they are, and there’s no sort of hierarchy in the locker room of who’s this or that … we try and create an environment where people can just be who they are, which then goes and shows on the field. ”
In fact, it’s that club environment – which Harvey notes has been part of the Reign’s DNA since day one – that she believes attracts players to Seattle in the first place. “It’s something that I’m actually really proud of that it continues to this day, because I think it makes it easier to bring in these bigger names.”
The transparent approach comes with an honest reflection on performances, too. Harvey noted that with successful teams, you always have to be striving to be better and better. And while OL Reign is in a decent position after nine games – sitting fifth on the league table – the team’s lack of goal production has been a consistent talking point.
Despite averaging 1.43 expected goals (xG) per match, the team has only scored 0.78 goals a game. They are creating chances, but have not been able to finish them consistently. A push to be better means a focus on being more clinical in front of goal, something Heath and Little can provide instantly, and Huitema should be able to add in the long-term.
“Tobin’s ability to create and finish chances adds something unique that I believe will help elevate our group,” Harvey criticized in the club’s press release announcing Heath’s arrival. Little, meanwhile, left the Reign in 2016 as the all-time leading goal-scorer in the NWSL with 32 goals and 16 assists after three seasons. She went on to score another 27 goals in 73 matches with Arsenal.
Harvey noted in a recent press conference that a constant focus on getting better means asking whether there are players who could help the club now or help develop young players for the future. Heath and Little can do a bit of both, which is something that really excites the Reign head coach.
“We’ve got a young group. It’s probably the youngest group we’ve ever had at the Reign. Obviously, we’ve got the OGs, but then there’s sort of this OG group and then there’s probably a couple of them in their late 20s, and then everyone is really 25 and under, ”Harvey added during an Equal Time Soccer conversation last week with former Reign player Dani Foxhoven. “So I think bringing in Kim, Tobin, people who know what it takes to really be successful, I think it’s going to be great for the young players.”
The Reign attack is particularly young. Bethany Balcer and Ally Watt are 25, with this being Watt’s first full season after recovering from an ACL tear. This year’s first-round draft pick, Zsani Kaján, is 24. Tziarra King is only 23, Angelina is just 22, and new signing Huitema is 21. Veronica Latsko is the oldest player on the frontline aside from Megan Rapinoe, and she’s 26.
The time is right to welcome Heath and Little, as well. The club will be without eight players for the next three matches, as Rapinoe, Rose Lavelle, Alana Cook, Sofia Huerta, Quinn, Huitema, and Jimena Lopez will all be joining their national teams for the Concacaf W Championship, and Angelina is joining Brazil for the Copa América Femenina. As the Reign – along with the rest of the league – deal with significant international absences in July, it’s a perfect time to integrate some veteran players who might be able to push the squad to improve before heading into the second half of the season.
Can Harvey do it? Well, she only has to point to OL Reign defender Sam Hiatt’s experience from last season to this year as proof.
“You know, I use Sam Hiatt a lot for that. Last year, when I came in, Sam Hiatt didn’t play a ton of minutes but learned a ton from Alana [Cook] and Lu [Barnes] and all the other people that were playing, and now she’s a regular starter for us. ”
Hiatt is second on the team in accurate passes per match, has won 67% of her duels, and was named to the 59-player provisional US roster – a good indication that she’ll stay on Vlatko Andonovski’s radar if her strong performances continue. Bethany Balcer, who only had 1,210 minutes last year, already has seven starts and 628 minutes for the Reign in 2022.
Harvey hopes Hiatt isn’t the only example she’ll be able to highlight by the end of this year and into next season. She still has to figure out the right players to feature at the right time – and the players still need to get rid of the finishing curse they seem to have – but the Reign head coach will have an abundance of riches to choose from when she does . Development is not always a straight line, and sometimes players just need a little extra push to get to their best.