In her three matches with Reign FC this season, midfielder Jess Fishlock has been quick to remind the league why she is regarded as one of the league’s most incisive and versatile midfielders. Against the Washington Spirit on June 15, Fishlock focused her game on attacking the goal, effectively becoming a fourth forward for Reign FC.
Central attacking midfielders often make their largest impact on a match facilitating play between the wings, hitting precise passes and shuttling the ball from midfield to the edge of the attacking third. It was this role that Fishlock took up in her first two matches back with Reign FC, calming the midfield and helping the club retain possession in a 2-1 win over the North Carolina Courage and trying to help the forwards find gaps between the Dash back line in a 1-1 draw with Houston.
Against Washington, though, Fishlock drove forward. Her 25 attempted passes were the second fewest among outfield players for Reign FC, trailing only left wing Ifeoma Onumonu’s 21. Fishlock lurked around the Spirit’s 18-yard-line, a false-nine despite Bethany Balcer’s presence as a center forward.
The shift produced results. Fishlock hammered 11 shots, four on target and with four more blocked by a Spirit defense that had to deal with 24 Reign FC shots over the span of 90 minutes.
It also yielded Reign FC’s only goal of the contest. Fishlock’s lurking at the edge of the penalty put her in the perfect position to recover a rebound from her own shot and fire it past Washington keeper Aubrey Bledsoe in the 77th minute.
For Reign FC head coach Vlatko Andonovski, Fishlock’s presence also provides a boost to on-field leadership.
“I think what I realized with Jess is that she’s enjoying it a lot more than she ever has,” Andonovski said. “Obviously, she’s a great player. Her contributions are tremendous for the team. Most importantly, I love her enjoyment of the game and her leadership on the field. She’s literally coaching the front line and the young players around her. It’s good to have her back.”
Fishlock’s offensive posture may have been the result of lineup realities presented by the team’s injury woes. Reign FC had six players unavailable for selection on Saturday, with one more who did not play after being listed as questionable. With this list including forwards Darian Jenkins and Shea Groom, Fishlock’s quality was needed up top to help Reign FC stay goal-dangerous.
Fishlock had an injury scare of her own that nearly kept her from being present to score the equalizer. Two minutes into the second half, Fishlock went down after a clashing with a defender and stayed down for several minutes, before walking off the pitch under her own power.
Andonovski said that, were his team not already beset with injuries, he would have removed Fishlock from the match.
“In any other game or circumstance where we had the whole team—when I say whole team I am not talking just about internationals that are gone for the world cup, the injuries that we have is what I’m talking about—I think that she would be out,” Andonovski said. “That’s just another proof of what this team is all about. I know we’re missing opportunities. I know we could have connected better at certain times. I know we could get a better cross or shot and you have all the right to question that, but one thing you can’t question is the heart of those players. They leave it all on the field.”
Still, the view of Fishlock prone on the pitch was one that has become the norm for Reign FC in the first half of the NWSL season. The club has suffered two season-ending injuries to forward Jasmyne Spencer and keeper Michelle Betos and has twice been forced to make two substitutions due to injury in the first half.
Andonovski is ready for the injuries to cease, but recognizes there is little that can be done about bad luck.
“I hit that point (where I was exasperated with the injuries) four weeks ago,” Andonovski said. “I’m already past the point. We’ve been unlucky with the injury bug. We’ve analyzed every possible aspect of the approach in terms of our preparation and tried to figure out anything we can do differently to protect to the players. Right now, I don’t think we can do much, we just have to wait for the ones who are injured to get back.”
Reign FC is entering a critical stretch of its season: four straight road matches while eight key players may be away on international duty for as long as three weeks. The club has taken nine points from its last five matches, and is unbeaten in that span.
Andonovski will continue to rely on the grit of his team to provide results and valuable points as the club prepares for the long stint away from home.
“Results-wise, I don’t think I’d be as happy if we had everyone available and ready,” Andonovski said. “That said, considering the adversity that we’ve faced, I’m happy with where we are in the standings. The other things that make me happy are the mentality of the players and the heart of the players. That’s something that I’m very proud of. I’m also happy we’re using this adversity more as a gift and as a challenge than an excuse. Every time we go through adversity, we get stronger and we get better. We’re trying to make the best out of it.”