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Reign FC open Cheney Stadium to fans

Fans got to walk around Cheney Stadium and we got to talk with Morgan Andrews and head coach Vlatko Andonovski

Nikita Taparia

On a cold Saturday morning, Reign FC fans got a closer look into the new chapter of Reign FC, by touring their new home, Tacoma’s Cheney Stadium.

The club opened their doors for existing season ticket holders to check out the view from their new seats, and for others in the community to possibly become new season ticket holders as various seats had price tags to inform those in attendance how much a full- or half-season package would cost in each section.

Attendees were also treated to a Reign FC training session, and while the grass field of Cheney Stadium may still be thawing out from this week’s lousy Smarch weather, being able to walk around Reign FC’s new home and see the sight lines from their new seats, the spacious and modern walkways and restrooms, and the variety of food and drink available in the banks of concession stands, it’s hard to dispute that Reign FC finally have a home stadium worthy of their players and their fans.

Reign FC have many players that have only known Memorial Stadium as their home. Those same players have had nothing but glowing at what it means to play on a proper grass surface. It was no exaggeration when Megan Rapinoe said at the January 30 press conference announcing the club’s relocation to Tacoma and the grass field would “add five years to my playing career.” While she wasn’t in attendance to participate in today’s activities, that sentiment is clearly shared by the rest of the team. Defender Megan Oyster echoed what Rapinoe said at February’s YachtCon: Nights.

After the training session and tours of Cheney Stadium, fans all gathered in the stadium’s Summit Club suite for what has now become a stable of the club’s preseason hype train — a Q&A session with Reign FC players, head coach Vlatko Andonovski, and owner/president Bill Predmore.

In general, events like these are obviously meant to drum up excitement for the upcoming season. Reign FC achieved that, and perhaps with the anxiety of a relocation to a brand new city, the excitement was paired with a calming optimism that yes, the future of Reign FC is in a good place with the move to Cheney Stadium. If the mood for the fans after Saturday’s open house boosted optimism, the club’s mood could only be best described as appreciation — appreciation that Tacoma has welcomed them with open arms; and appreciation that fans from near and far made a Saturday morning trek to Cheney Stadium to hang out in the cold to watch them train.

After the Q&A event, Reign FC players made themselves available for autographs and pictures with the fans. I was able to chat with midfielder Morgan Andrews and head coach Vlatko Andonovski after the festivities.

Morgan Andrews was one of the new faces to Reign FC last year (via the dispersal draft with the unfortunate folding of Boston Breakers), along with defenders Megan Oyster and Christen Westphal, and forward Elizabeth Addo (who has since moved on to play in China). Andrews made sixteen appearances last year, with seven of them in the starting eleven.

“It’s been gorgeous, the resources are just incredible. We have a lot of space in the training room with weights and different accessories that get us ready for training. The staff has been super great and the field is wonderful to play on. Grass pitch really is a dream and it’s the natural surface of the game, so like I said, just really excited and having fun,” said Andrews about Cheney Stadium, and she’s already seeing the benefits of a wider field for highlighting her skills.

“I personally really love to spray those balls over the top and to use the width of the field, so it’s definitely playing into my skill set.”

Fans may remember flashes of that soon-to-be-patented Morgan Andrews long ball when she got perhaps more than expected playing time due to injuries in the midfield, but it’s those flashes that get remembered and carry over into what could be a big year for her. Andrews said that her discipline with the ball and understanding the tactics and strategies head coach Vlatko Andonovski wants to implement in the game has grown under his tutelage since joining the squad last year, though she noted there is still room for improvement on her quest to perform what she called “the slice ball”, which she has been learning from teammate Jess Fishlock.

“I’m working on it, but I don’t know if I’ll ever be as good as Jess.”

And what of the boss, Vlatko Andonovski?

The last time we heard from the Reign FC head coach was after last year’s heart-breaking NWSL semifinal loss at Portland Thorns. When we asked him what he said to the players in the huddle immediately after the full time whistle blew on their season, he famously said, “I told them that I love them.” That powerful statement echoed throughout the hearts of Reign FC fans and assured them that under his watch, the process of returning Reign FC to their glory and beyond was in good hands. With the first week of training camp in the books, the second year of the Vlatko Andonovski Era is well under way.

“The beauty of the game is not really exposed, but it’s about setting the tone and intensity, and I think we did a good job and it was a typical first week,” said Andonovski, though he did say having it snowing while they were training wasn’t typical. Then again, perhaps it was fitting given it was the club’s first time training together with so much new around them. New city, new stadium, new facilities, but Andonovski says the adjustment has been smooth.

And speaking of adjustments, I asked him what he learned about himself from last year. “Personally, I learned that I can never be over-prepared. So any time I feel like I’m ready and prepared, there are times the game presents a challenge I haven’t thought of. Which is great, because it makes me think a little bit more and makes me think of more things, challenges me, and brings out the best in me.

“From the team perspective, I got to know the players a little bit better. Last year in the first few weeks, they were a little bit nervous, didn’t know what to expect. Not that they were scared, but they just didn’t know what to expect from the new coach, and from my side, I didn’t know what to expect from the players. Now, there is no transition like last year. Now, I know what to expect from the players, they know my standards and expectations, and things run very smooth.”

When it was announced in November 2017 that Vlatko Andonovski was replacing Laura Harvey as head coach of Reign FC, and with with the subsequent significant roster turnover, there were a lot of questions about what the 2018 squad would look like and what they could achieve on the field.

It’s hard to argue the results: a return to the NWSL Playoffs and an incredibly stingy defense, conceding a second-best in the league 19 goals over 24 games. Of course there’s a bigger objective for Reign FC — to bring home the NWSL Championship. The veteran leadership of players like of Jess Fishlock, Megan Rapinoe, Beverly Yanez, Lauren Barnes, and Rumi Utsugi will be instrumental to that campaign, as will the addition of new faces like Shea Groom, Darian Jenkins, Morgan Proffitt, and Elise Kellond-Knight.

Andonovski noted that the additions of Groom, Jenkins, and Proffitt bring youth, energy, and physicality. The latter is something Andonovski admits the team was missing last year. “We wanted to get a little bit more aggressive, We wanted to get a little bit more intense, we wanted to get a little bit more energetic, and we wanted to get a little younger as well.” With Kellond-Knight, Andonovski praised her experience (105 caps and counting with Australia) and her versatility, with the ability to play in multiple spots on the field.

However there could also be some contributions by players who may not be household names to Reign FC fans right now, but could be in the near future. Andonovski praised forwards Jorian Baucom and Summer Mason, both training camp invitees.

Another addition that was a pleasant surprise to see in the club’s announcement was Stephanie Cox joining Andonovski’s coaching staff. This will be Cox’s second stint with Reign FC as an assistant coach, with her first being in the 2017 season. Andonovski said he originally wanted her as part of his staff last season, but the logistics didn’t work out. The club’s move to Tacoma now has made it possible, and Andonovski has nothing but excitement about the knowledge she’ll bring to the players, notably to the defenders, which we know is near and dear to Andonovski’s heart. The return of Stephanie Cox to the Reign FC bench is nothing but good. And speaking of benches, I ended my chat with Andonovski with a bit of fun.

Anyone that attended Reign FC home matches last year may have noticed Andonovski’s propensity to go just a smidge outside the designed technical area at the bench. Yes, the area was laughably small, but if you were in the stands with the Reign FC bench in your field of vision, chances are you saw Andonovski closer to the corner flag or midfield stripe than the bench. Andonovski said he doesn’t do it on purpose and that he doesn’t dispute it when the fourth official tells him he’s outside of the technical area; and when he reviews matches on film he would see his transgressions, and he definitely hears it from opposition fans when Seattle is on the road. It is understandable that he could be getting caught in the moment of the game unfolding before him and he needs to relay instructions to the players. Hopefully with Cheney Stadium having a lot more real estate on the bench side of the field, the technical area will be larger than a postage stamp if Andonovski has his say.

“I’ll ask for a bigger technical area from the stadium crew.”

We’re still over a month away from Reign FC playing a regular season game, but it’s clear that the future of the club on the field is in very good, stable hands, and the future of the club off the field in terms of sustainability and fan experience look to be positioned in a similar direction.

Whenever the calendar turns over to a new year, a popular question among Sounders FC fans is, “Is it March yet?” After today’s festivities with the moods of appreciation and optimism, Reign FC fans are surely asking, “Is it April yet?”

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