Updated: Jan 1, 2020
For most teams, the World Cup means losing your key players. And Reign FC are no exception. They’ll spend the next month or two missing the likes of Megan Rapinoe, Jodie Taylor, and Allie Long. But they’re also the rare team for whom this month means getting a key player back. With the end of the European club soccer calendar, Jess Fishlock’s loan period to Olympique Lyonnais has concluded, and she’s now back home in the pacific northwest.
Given the travel, and the potential lingering effects of her work to help Lyon take home a fourth consecutive Champions League title, there was some speculation about whether she would even play this weekend. And according to head coach Vlatko Andonovski, even after they knew she would start there were serious plans to limit her minutes. But as the saying goes: the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry when dragons get involved.
Because Fishlock just made too big a difference, and the Reign desperately needed her out there to see the game out. Her effect could be felt at three different levels, all of which are important in their own way.
The first is the simplest: her technical ability is top-notch, and helped solidify a Reign midfield that has looked shockingly weak for much of the season. Fishlock wasn’t even especially sharp by her lofty standards, but all the key features were there: her coolness in possession, her incisive passing, and her ability to generate space to receive the ball and relieve teammates under pressure. Having a dynamo in the midfield will go a long way to get the ship back on track.
Fishlock’s second contribution was tactical. Here, things were a tad surprising, with Andonovski choosing to bring her in as a #10 at the tip of the central midfield triangle, rather than in a more holding role. At times, she was really playing as more of a second striker than anything else.
The more obvious move might have been to leave Fishlock in a box-to-box role, leaving Bev Yanez at the top of the midfield. Yanez has always been more of a striker-turned-midfielder than anything else. But as Andonovski noted after the game, she’s also a sponge for training, and has made big strides in her tactical awareness. She also, for whatever reason, has struggled to impose herself on games in the forward attacking role this season. But freed from some of those responsibilities, she had her best game of 2019, while Fishlock ran the show in front of her.
We’ve grown used to fantastical things from Fishlock, but it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on just how difficult it is to slide so easily into what is effectively a brand new attacking unit. Before Monday’s game, she had played zero total minutes with the entire front three. And that front three was also all playing together for the first time. With the departure of Jodie Taylor, Bethany Balcer slotted into the central position, allowing Darian Jenkins and Shea Groom to fan out on either side. There is boatloads of talent in that trio, but no one would have been surprised if it hadn’t quite gelled. But from the first minute, the Reign looked deadly, and Fishlock played a major role in binding all the pieces together. You could see her directing runs, and could hear her calling out directions—every bit the player-manager that we saw from her a couple winters ago in Australia.
This was critically important in the first half, when the Reign took the game directly to North Carolina, turning the tables a bit on last year’s champions by pressing hard and fast to disrupt play. It worked wonderfully, and a huge part of that is due to Fishlock’s directions. All too often, pressing in the NWSL is really more a matter of ball-chasing. But the Reign put on a clinic, with waves of pressure challenging the ball-carrier and closing down all her passing options. That’s obviously something that happens at the team level, but Fishlock was a critical piece of making it work.
Her third contribution to the team was psychological. It’s no surprise that a Vlatko Andonovski team played with confidence, but there’s still something impressive about taking on a team as good as North Carolina (even in their weakened form) and not backing down an inch. That’s what the Reign did in the first half, and it sure can’t have hurt to have a player like Fishlock to keep everyone on the same page. Then, during those critical twenty minutes in the middle of the second half—when NC often tear apart the opposition—the Reign bent but never broke. They even managed to produce the occasional chance of their own, with Groom pouncing on a defensive mistake to put her team up 2-0. While things did get a little nervy in the final minutes, the Reign held on to see out a much-needed win.
This wasn’t Fishlock’s best game, or really anywhere close. She understandably looked tired, and occasionally struggled with her touch. She missed a couple chances to split the defense. She was dispossessed more than you’d expect. But even accounting for all that, it was a critical intervention, and a demonstration of just how badly the Reign have missed her.
There were many interesting stories from this game—the debut of Casey Murphy in goal, the growing excitement surrounding Bethany Balcer, Shea Groom breaking her goal-scoring drought, a revitalized performance from Bev Yanez, rock-solid defending from Megan Oyster, and on and on. But intermixed with each of those stories is the return of Fishlock. A great player who makes everyone else around her play great. For the Reign and for neutrals, it’s great to have her back. For fans of other teams, not so much.