No one expected OL Reign to be up by three goals when the clock hit the 15 minute mark. In fact, no one had expected two of those goals to come from two unlikely sources in Nikki Stanton and Sam Hiatt. The other goal, scored by Bethany Balcer, was definitely expected, but for Stanton and Hiatt to find their first NWSL goals in front of their hometown, in their own stadium? Well, that storybook stuff right there.
OL Reign had taken San Diego Wave FC by storm from the moment the first whistle blew. They put their opponents under constant pressure and did not give them the opportunity to try and find an outlet ball to Alex Morgan, or any other of the San Diego forwards. That pressure told as the hosts had three shots on target which resulted in three goals by the 11th minute.
After such a fast start that saw Nikki Stanton score off a deflected effort in the second minute, and a long range thunderbolt by Bethany Balcer six minutes later made it two-nil for OL Reign, they lined up once again three minutes after Balcer’s goal for a corner kick. Lauren Barnes is an expert at putting in great set pieces and her first one had led to Stanton’s goal. This time, it led to one of, if not the best, goal of the night.
The San Diego backline tried to clear Barnes’ corner kick initially but it fell to Tziarra King inside the penalty area. King then shot towards goal but it found the feet of Abby Dahlkemper first and then Kaleigh Riehl. Reighl’s attempted clearance didn’t go very far however and another scramble ensued inside San Diego’s box. The lucky recipient of that scramble was Sam Hiatt who took a touch with her left foot before using her right to find the back of the net with an audacious, instinctive chip.
With just two touches, Hiatt had shown off a touch and finish that we had not seen from the OL Reign defender since she first came into the league. Stanton and Balcer may have gotten OL Reign on their way to victory, but it was Hiatt’s brilliant moment of technique that made sure of the win for the home side.
Sam Hiatt isn’t the more well-known of the Reign centre backs. Most of the attention, deservedly so, goes to Alana Cook when the two of them play together but with Cook on the bench due to just coming back from international duty, this was Hiatt’s moment to shine. Hiatt has had a good start to her second full season in the NWSL and is beginning to justify Laura Harvey’s faith in her. After a sterling performance against Portland earlier on this month, we’re beginning to see why Harvey has decided to push Lauren Barnes out wide and have Hiatt partner Cook in the centre of that defence. In fact after that Portland game, Harvey had high praise for Hiatt, stating that she’s improving all the time and that she’s showing her “grit” which works perfectly alongside a player like Cook.
Last night however, it wasn’t just about her “grit”. Hiatt showed off the ability to find the back of the net, something we usually don’t see from her as when Cook is available, Hiatt stays back on set pieces while her partner goes up for the set pieces. Against San Diego, Hiatt was given the licence to go forward and affected the Reign’s set pieces positively each time.
With her goal, Hiatt exemplified the physicality to hold off her marker while also still having the presence of mind to settle the ball with her first touch and then deciding to go for a cheeky attempt at a finish. Her first touch set up her second, allowing the ball to lift off the ground for a split second and switching it to her stronger foot, her right, for the chance to go for goal.
Once the ball was on her more favoured foot, Hiatt did not hesitate to try something most players wouldn’t dare to do inside the penalty area. In that kind of situation, most players would go for a low, powerful shot to beat the goalkeeper and they would be right to do so. With so many bodies in and around the ball, a luck deflection could easily take the ball away from the goalkeeper who’s probably unsighted due to the chaotic nature of the moment. A stab at goal would probably be more than enough for any player to find the back of the net from there.
That wasn’t what Sam Hiatt opted to do though. Instead, she went to chip/lob/whatever you want to call it and put her team in pole position before 15 minutes were even on the board.
The various angles of the goal show that Hiatt absolutely meant to put some spin on that shot and it was a ridiculous goal to score, especially from a centre back. The spin not only completely took out the goalkeeper, Carly Telford, but also had enough rotation on it to make the ball spin daintily into the far corner of the goal. As Hiatt herself stated in the post-match press conference, “I definitely kicked it towards goal but as you saw, there was a lot of arc on it so I wasn’t sure if it’d go in and then it did.” And arc it did. The ball took a slow, looping canter from Hiatt’s foot, into the sky, over Telford before nestling into the netting of the far side of the goal. It was an agonising watch for San Diego, and a thrilling view with a satisfying end for Hiatt and anyone associated with OL Reign.
It was a goal worthy of any game and the fact that it came from an unlikely source in that OL Reign roster makes it even more special.
There’s still a long way to go this year for OL Reign and Sam Hiatt in the NWSL and she’ll be required to keep goals out of goal then score them more often than not. However, if she can combine her development as a defender in this league with goals like what she created yesterday then the Reign have got a centre back pairing in Hiatt and Cook, that will serve them well for years to come.