The Courage sit at the top of the league, setting yet another record for the most goals scored in a season (54). They’re entering their fourth straight semifinal appearance (playing one as the Western NY Flash before the team moved to North Carolina) and come into the game with plenty of healthy bodies. Reign FC, meanwhile, have put in half as many goals this season while dealing with a laundry list of injuries and a rotating cast of players.
Despite these differences, the coaches for both sides head into the match with one specific thing in common: plenty of mutual respect for one another. After all, the two haven’t just gotten to know each other through head-to-head battles in the NWSL or the occasional draft day banter. Both participated in a yearlong U.S. Soccer Pro License Course in 2018, which represents the highest soccer license recognized in North America.
“We got really close doing the pro course together, then running things off each other and talking football for days and days,” Courage head coach Paul Riley shared on a conference call previewing the semifinal match. “Vlatko is one of my favorite people in the world. He’s a brilliant coach. He’s a breath of fresh air in the league.”
Riley was quick to remind reporters that Reign FC has caused the Courage problems this year — beating them in Tacoma and nearly holding them scoreless in their final regular season match-up. Riley credits the tactical brilliance of the Reign FC maestro for the tight games.
“He always throws a little wrench in things when we play him. I like that. It’s a great challenge to me and our players. You always know that [Seattle]’s well organized and disciplined,” Riley said. “They’ve always got something — like a little press — and it’s always a great game when we play them. His team has always played great football.”
Andonovski shared similar sentiments and admiration when asked about the person who will be standing in the opposing coach’s area during the match.
“I think Paul Riley is one of the best coaches I’ve ever had the chance to coach against,” Andonovski shared. “He’s done an incredible job with the Courage. Good roster, good team, organized, disciplined. All together, they’ve done an unbelievable job.”
While the teams may play a different style of soccer due to player personnel and injuries, they both have been heralded for their strong mentality — although it manifests in different ways for either side.
When it comes to Reign FC, the word “family” has been thrown around constantly this year as one way to explain their resilience in the face of mounting injuries and challenges. The togetherness of the squad and their ability to be prepared for the next opponent — regardless of who stepped onto the field — is why Riley thinks Vlatko is the top contender for Coach of the Year this season.
“He’s done a hell of a job with [Seattle] this year. You look at the injuries they’ve had — Vlatko has just overcome a lot of hurdles. You got to take your hat off to him. His ability to get results with people missing is unbelievable,” Riley shared.
Andonovski was also quick to praise his players for rising above these challenges, noting that the entire season — not just the playoffs — define their character. “We cannot take these last two games — hopefully two games — and say this is what our season looks like. The diversity of challenges that we had to overcome, I have to say that this team is incredible. Obviously, we’re gonna do whatever it takes to be successful in these last two games, but even if we’re not, we’re very happy with what these players did to even be in this next game.”
For North Carolina, their mentality has less to do with overcoming injuries — although they’ve dealt with a few this year — and comes more in the form of how they show up on the pitch. The team plays with such confidence that is easy to see when you watch them: they know they aren’t going to lose a match.
“They are very aware of how good they are — and not just how good they are, they are well aware of the fact that they are the best team. They have been the best team for a few years now,” Andonovski said.
In some ways, the Reign FC coach thinks that makes it a bit easier for his team, a side that has seen 36 players show up in the 18 for at least one match this year. To borrow a phrase that Riley used for years — but his team has certainly outgrown at this point — the Reign come into the playoffs as “underdogs.”
“We’re going into the game very relaxed because we know that we have nothing to lose,” Andonovski said.
North Carolina is excited, meanwhile, to be playing their semifinal match at home — a place they haven’t lost this year. Tactically, it gives them a larger field to play on than Cheney Stadium. That doesn’t mean Andonovski’s side will make it easy. The Courage will have to work hard to utilize that extra space.
Regardless of the result on Sunday, it is clear both coaches will be showering each other with praise after the final whistle blows. Let’s just hope it is Paul Riley who has to send a few more compliments Vlatko’s way.
The NWSL semifinal match kicks off at 10:30 AM PT on Sunday, October 20, and will air on ESPN2.