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It was a Reign FC home opener to remember

Bethany Balcer impressed in her first NWSL start. So did Cheney Stadium.


It was an inaugural match to remember, although Reign FC certainly walked away from Sunday’s game against the Orlando Pride feeling like they deserved three points instead of one. While the club had to settle for a 1-1 draw, it was a memorable affair at Cheney Stadium featuring pre-match festivities for season ticket holders, an impressive opening ceremony fireworks display, a bustling (and permanent!) team store, and plenty of great soccer.

In a match where Orlando was on short rest but had all its preferred starters, while Reign FC had four key players out due to injury, the home side showed grit in Grit City to create a number of exciting chances. A combination of veterans and new faces shined for the Reign.

Welcome back, Bev

The Houston Dash walked over the Reign FC midfield in the first half of the 2019 season opener. It was an unfamiliar feeling for Reign fans, who have had the fortune of following a club with a dominant midfield year after year.

This weekend, Bev Yanez returned to the lineup and reminded us all why she should be considered a key part of any team’s Starting XI. In the last few years, Yanez has moved further back on the pitch from the center forward role she dominated in 2015. As a result, she’s become more defensive in nature and had fewer offensive statistics. Yanez showed on Sunday, however, that this shift can be a very good thing for Reign FC.

The veteran midfielder was all over the pitch, breaking up plays and jumpstarting attacks higher up the field. She’s such an intelligent player who knows how to create opportunities for those around her. Case in point: on Bethany Balcer’s goal for Reign FC, Yanez does a brilliant job to get positioning and shield Ali Krieger off the ball.

Don’t expect heavy offensive stats for Yanez this year, but keep an eye on her game-changing movement, smart tackles, and strong connections with teammates.

That’s the Shea Groom I remember

Shea Groom is a player who opposing fans have loved to hate. She’s been on the giving and receiving end of a number of hard challenges and tackles. While at FC Kansas City, playing under Vlatko Andonovski at the time, Groom was notorious for putting her body on the line to win the ball for her team. That resulted in receiving both yellow cards and broken ribs, but it was the bite and spirit the team needed. Groom was a player you hated going up against, but loved to have on your team.

That version of Groom felt missing last season at Sky Blue FC. But on Sunday night, the Groom that terrorized the league in years prior announced her presence — putting her body on the line numerous times. It was her work rate that nearly put the Reign ahead in the 32nd minute, when she blocked an Ashlyn Harris clearance only to narrowly avoid getting to the bouncing ball before it went out of bounds. The play ignited the crowd.

It was Groom’s leaps into the air to win a cross, or her body flying across the endline to save a pass, that fans remembered after the lights turned off at Cheney Stadium on Sunday.

Groom didn’t get much of a preseason under her belt, as she was nursing a hamstring injury, so she’s still working her way into matches. That was evident in the few times she took one too many touches in the box or hesitated to unleash a shot. But if Sunday’s performance was any indicator, Shea Groom is back — and the league should be worried.

Speaking of moments to remember ...

I had the chance to connect with Andonovski this preseason and he referenced a player named Bethany Balcer who had tons of potential, but needed a bit of guidance to break through in the league. He seemed uncertain at the time if she’d end up on the roster. Admittedly, I knew little about her. She played for Sounders Women last year in their championship run and had a number of NAIA college accolades — but there was little about her potential on the NWSL stage.

Balcer saw limited time during the preseason, making it hard to truly gauge her skill set. There was the solid performance against UW to wrap up the preseason, but that was a college side without all its players. Just a week later, the team signed her, and a week after that, she started in just the second match of the season — filling in for attacking players who were injured.

In a match that featured world-class stars like Alex Morgan and Marta, it was Balcer that made the loudest statement.

Sure, she scored Reign FC’s lone goal on a well-taken shot. But her passing and defensive acumen to swarm and win the ball back — something Andonovski mentioned he was working with her on in preseason — were even more impressive. She finished the night with 5 shots and 5 interceptions, and won 4 out of 5 tackles.

It’s too early to predict the kind of season Balcer will have, but her performance on Sunday gave Reign FC fans plenty to look forward to.

About those fans ...

Let’s talk a bit about the turnout for Reign FC’s inaugural match at Cheney Stadium. At 7 PM on a Sunday — scratch that, at 7 PM on EASTER Sunday — 5,323 people made their way to Tacoma to cheer on the club. That number marks the highest attendance for a Reign home opener in history, and the eighth highest of all time for the club.

Going even further, Sunday was the fourth most-attended match if you remove games against the Portland Thorns, where traveling supporters help pad the stats. Many of those well-attended matches came in 2015 after the Women’s World Cup.

That could be a telling sign of things to come. Tacoma showed up for Reign FC, and the club put on an entertaining show in response. Reign FC won’t be back home for a month, but their May 18 match against Sky Blue FC marks a double-header with Tacoma Defiance.

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