As the club gears up for its fourth trip to the NWSL semifinals, Reign FC veterans know well the intensity that the postseason requires.
Reign FC centerback and captain Lauren Barnes said that it’s becoming more difficult every year to make the playoffs.
“It’s actually something really special,” Barnes said. “This league is so tough both physically and mentally. You play a lot of games. Each year it’s gotten better and better, so to make it to the top four says a lot. At this club in general, we’ve done really well with that. It’s really exciting. The journey is so tough. With the World Cup you get so many girls coming in, so many girls going out. There are so many pieces that have been involved in getting us here. I can’t thank everyone involved enough. At the end of the day, it’s something that’s really exciting and it comes down to these semifinal games now.”
Reign FC’s season has had its challenges, especially for its veterans. The club has four players on its roster that have been a part of all four playoff runs: Barnes, Bev Yanez, Megan Rapinoe and Jess Fishlock.
Of those four, only two have made 10 appearances for the club this season. Fishlock, who made a major impact upon her return from loan to French side Olympique Lyon, suffered a torn ACL on June 28, while Rapinoe was limited to five appearances due to lingering injuries from the United States’ championship-winning World Cup run.
Barnes and Yanez, meanwhile, have been rock steady for Reign FC. The centerback broke 2,000 minutes for the second time in her NWSL career, while Yanez has appeared in 21 of the club’s 24 matches. Both players know how to turn up their games when the season is on the line; the defender and midfielder were both named to the NWSL Team of the Month for September.
For Yanez, the playoffs are all about which team can capture the necessary final burst of adrenaline to see out two intense matches against the best competition in the league.
“It’s about being as focused as you possibly can for that short period, working as hard as you can,” Yanez said. “It’s just quick. I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s about staying focused. You have the entire season to learn your teammate’s characteristics, personalities, it’s about being able to combine everything that you’ve worked on all season, be as professional as you possibly can and as sharp you can within that period of time.”
After three regular-season meetings, Reign FC’s players will be familiar not only with one another, but their opponents, the North Carolina Courage.
For Barnes, the familiarity aids in the preparation process.
“It is nice to be able to know who your opponent is,” Barnes said. “You focus in on a team: their qualities, their strengths, their weaknesses. I know Vlatko and the staff are going to be over-prepared. He’s always been very good at that. I’ve always felt going out that we’re prepared to the best of our abilities. In terms of tactics, it will depend on what the staff wants us to do. We have our strengths and we have our weaknesses. If we can continue to do what we’ve been doing well, then we won’t have a problem.”
Still, when single elimination games are underway, even the savviest veterans can fall victim to nerves. Yanez says she focuses on trying to play freely and encourages the club’s younger players to do the same.
“You would think that that (nerves would be an issue),” Yanez said. “I know for me as a player, I know that when you look at it that way it becomes more nerve-wracking. It’s just another game. Everything is on the line in that game, but if you put too much pressure on yourself, it can start to take another route because of what it will do to your nerves. I’ve always felt that nerves mean that you care, but the ability to control those nerves in that environment, when everything is on the line is massive. You have to play and have fun. Go out there and love each other. That’s what separates teams in the playoffs.”
The players know their journey isn’t over yet. Despite the challenge posed by North Carolina, the club feels that it is capable of overcoming any obstacle after surmounting all the difficulties that have presented themselves this season.
“I think this group is special on and off the field,” Yanez said. “I think this group has accomplished incredible things and will continue to do that. I think going in to these playoffs we have huge momentum. We have huge belief in each other and I think whether they’re older or younger, the players all trust each other and believe in each other. We do this together. As a veteran coming in for my fourth playoffs, I don’t feel special. We’re all in the same spot. If I can help anyone, of course I would love to do that. It’s about being able to support each other on and off the field. If we can do that, we’ll go far.”