For those of you who have watched NBC’s Friday Night Lights, the title of this piece will be familiar to you. If you have not, let me add some context. The Dillon Panthers (the fictional high school football team at the center of the show) had a motto, “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose”, that seemed corny to the players at first but eventually would become a motto that they carried into their everyday lives. This weekend and potentially the next, the Reign have the chance to take their “Be Bold” tag and make it a reality, just as the Dillon Panthers did in 2006.
When Friday Night Lights begins, the Panthers’ starting quarterback Jason Street is set to be scouted by big-time colleges, but he gets into an accident that leaves him paralyzed. With Street ruled out, the team turns to their untested backup, Matt Saracen, to lead them. Fortunately for Reign starting goalkeeper Michelle Betos, a season-ending injury at the beginning of the season is as far as the comparison ends for her. and just like the Panthers, the Reign had to turn to untested and newly signed goalkeeper Casey Murphy to start for the rest of the season.
On FNL, Saracen went on to lead the team to a state championship. Casey Murphy could potentially do the same if the Reign can find a way past the North Carolina Courage in the semifinal and, after that, either Portland Thorns FC or the Chicago Red Stars. While goalkeepers are usually not held in the same regard as quarterbacks, losing a starting goalkeeper for any team can be crippling and their backups are often not good enough to help a team to the pinnacle of the sport. Murphy, however, has not only been a standout in NWSL, but has now also given the Reign a goalkeeping quandary in the future. Once Betos returns, the Reign will have to decide who is the best option between her and Murphy going forward and as it stands, Murphy may win that battle.
Unlike FNL character Eric Taylor, who is shown to be just starting a new job in Dillon, Texas as the Panthers head coach, this is Vlatko Andonovski’s second season with the Reign. Taylor had to find a way to communicate with a new team and then help them adjust to losing their starting quarterback to injury, as well as losing their star player to a rival team. The Reign have not given up a star to say, Portland, but they have lost key cogs to their wheel in Betos and later on, Jess Fishlock. Just as Coach Taylor did with the Panthers, Andonovski not only looked to his roster to replace those players but also had the foresight to bring in players who could help the team immediately.
Smash and Riggins
Bethany Balcer has had a remarkable rookie season and will be looking to add to her six goals this year. The Courage backline is not easy to breach but Balcer has done so earlier this season when the Reign beat the Courage in Tacoma. To counter the loss of Fishlock, Andonovski reshaped his midfield, dropping Beverly Yanez further back and sometimes even using defenders, like Celia Jiménez Delgado, to bring in results and it’s worked. Lastly, just as Coach Taylor leaned on veterans like Tim Riggins and Brian “Smash” Williams to hold the team together, Andonovski looked to club captain Lauren Barnes and Megan Oyster to form a formidable backline. Not many coaches can adjust that quickly to losing key players but Coach Taylor did, and Vlatko Andonovski has proven that he can too, to great effect.
Like the Dillon Panthers, the Reign have had to battle through trials and tribulations, and like their fictional counterparts, have taken the team motto to heart. The Panthers used to chant “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose” before every game and it eventually became a theme to their season. For the Reign, their official tag of “Be Bold” has become an even clearer reality this season. The North Carolina Courage are everyone’s favourites to win and have a 2-1 regular season record against the Reign, but soccer is an unpredictable sport. If this season is anything to go by, the Reign may really be the Dillon Panthers come to life.