Reign FC are entering the second half of the 2019 NWSL season in fourth place in the league standings. If the season ended today, they would be one of four playoff teams in pursuit of the NWSL Championship.
That statement alone sounds pretty good under any circumstance.
The context of this year’s squad, however, makes that statement, let’s be honest, a damn miracle.
The team is back in the comfortable confines of Cheney Stadium, preparing for their first home match in roughly a month and a half, facing the Chicago Red Stars on Sunday. Reign FC are back from playing four straight matches on the road, three of which were against teams that were in last season’s NWSL playoffs, including eventual champions North Carolina Courage.
If you’re a fan of this team, you could not have asked for a better result out of the stretch of four runs. Reign FC acquired nine out of the possible twelve points.
Again, that statement alone sounds pretty good under any circumstance.
The context is that the 2019 Reign FC season has been riddled with injuries. Whatever bad luck has fallen on head coach Vlatko Andonovski’s squad has the team inexplicably on the business end of the powers that be who are responsible for allocating injuries. Six, that’s right, six players are on the SEI (Season Ending Injury) list; various players have been ruled either out or questionable on the weekly injury reports; and the first-choice goalkeeper coming into the season is about to get surgery on an injured ankle sustained at the World Cup.
And yet, Reign FC are in fourth place at the halfway mark of the season.
It has never been used an excuse as to why Reign FC started slow out of the gate in scoring goals and getting results. Like all teams this season, depth was always going to be tested with each team losing their key and, in most cases, best players to the just-completed World Cup, but so many injuries — as much as they are a part of any sport — is something no team can afford. Certainly, in the case of Reign FC having six completely out for the season, injuries could have, perhaps should have, derailed this team.
Yet, Reign FC are in fourth place.
Here’s an overview of the club by the numbers.
Current table position: 4th place with 20 points
Games played: 12 / Wins: 5 / Draws: 5 / Losses: 2
Goals for: 12 / Goals against: 11 / Goal differential: 1
Leading goal scorers: Jess Fishlock & Bethany Balcer, each with 3
Leading minutes played: Lauren Barnes, 1,080 minutes
Saves leader: Casey Murphy, 24 (0.71 GAA / 3 clean sheets)
Player transactions to date: LOTS!
At Tuesday’s training session, I spoke with Andonovski and players about the state of the team at the halfway mark of the season.
Lauren Barnes has been here since day one. The Reign FC Original has experienced the depths, the heights and everything in-between. Last year was the start of a new era for the club and Barnes has remained a stalwart on Reign FC’s back line, continuing to grow her game, but also set an example for the younger players.
“We definitely have a foundation here with what we want our culture to look like and the environment to look like. Although I am an older player, I think a lot of the younger ones know what needs to be brought to the table when these new faces come in. I think we’ve done a really good job bringing them in and making them feel comfortable. From top to the bottom, Vlatko has always really harped on being a family. For me that’s really easy to do because I like that and it’s kind of my character. It’s been really exciting, these girls have come in and done a really good job and set a high standard for everyone else coming back and for us to continue moving forward.”
Defender Celia Jiménez Delgado was drafted by Reign FC in the 2018 NWSL College Draft, though she did not make an appearance for the team, opting to finish school at the University of Alabama. She did remain on the team’s radar, as she had spells at Seattle Sounders Women and FC Rosengård in Sweden. It’s been an eventful first half of 2019 for her as she made an appearance in this year’s World Cup, and scored the match-winning goal at Portland Thorns FC on July 5, her first goal in NWSL.
“It’s been awesome. I have dreamed about playing in the NWSL for a long time and when I got drafted by Reign, it was one of the most beautiful moments of my professional career. The league is so competitive, the teammates are awesome, and the most important thing is I am learning from the coaching staff. I am getting the experience and enjoying sharing the locker room and field with such talented players.”
Midfielder Bev Yanez has been with Reign FC since 2014. Back then she was just a player on loan from Japan’s INAC Kobe Leonessa. Like Barnes, she is one of the veterans on the team, always ready to answer the call. This season, she’s taken on the responsibilities of a defensive midfielder and the results have been radiant. Like a ray of sunshine, some might say.
“This organization has such a positive environment, such a welcoming environment. We take a lot of pride in that. The players that came in, they’ve been working so hard and we’ve absolutely been so happy to have them. We appreciate everything that they’ve done and it’s been such an easy transition. They come in, they’re working hard and we all immediately become family.”
At the start of the season, Reign FC’s goalkeeper battery was Lydia Williams and Michelle Betos. Betos got the bulk of starts before Williams departed for the World Cup to represent Australia. Enter Casey Murphy, who completed a season at Montpellier in France. It’s hard to say what the plans would have been with goalkeeper rotation, because injuries to Betos and Williams now have Murphy in as the starting goalkeeper for the foreseeable future. Revelation may not be the best word to describe Murphy’s value to Reign FC so far, but it likely is the first one that comes to mind for a lot of fans. Keep in mind, she recorded 29 appearances at Montpellier, including in the UEFA Women’s Champions League en route to being awarded Goalkeeper of the Year honors. Needless to say, Casey Murphy can more than hang in this league, and while she only joined the team in May, she feels like she’s been here since day one of the season.
“I felt comfortable coming into this environment because the coaching staff and team allowed me to settle in and they taught me the main principles and standards of the team. That allowed me to jump right and feel like I didn’t skip a beat and the team is moving forward and happy with me back in net.”
Megan Oyster joined Reign FC in 2018 as a result of the Boston Breakers dispersal draft. The defender is establishing herself as a mainstay on the backline along with stalwart Lauren Barnes. In fact, the duo are two of four Reign FC players that have at least appeared in every single match so far this season. Defense is the bread & butter of Andonovski’s coaching system, so it’s no surprise that Reign FC are currently second best in the league with goals allowed at 11 (Utah Royals FC entering the league’s mid-week matches leads with 10). For Oyster, it’s that partnership with Barnes established last season that’s only getting better this year.
“We had last year to build off of and we’re continuing to learn and grow together. At this point, she does things and I can just read her without even speaking at this point and it’s just a great feeling to have her by my side and she holds me accountable in so many ways. I’m just very thankful for our relationship, our partnership.”
One thing we learned about Oyster last season is as her game grows to a level that is associated with US national team considerations, sometimes she still needs to be kept in line on the field. Oyster said last year on “Coffee & Valkyries” that sometimes fellow defender Theresa Nielsen will yell at her just to make sure she’s paying attention. Oyster chuckled but said that is still the case this season.
“Oh yeah. Theresa keeps me in line too. If there’s something that goes wrong, she’s the first one to say it and I appreciate that from her.”
In May, the Portland Thorns waived forward Ifeoma Onumonu. Six days later, Reign FC signed her as a National Team Replacement Player and has since been promoted to the team’s Supplemental Roster. Regardless of what roster designation she has, Portland’s loss is Reign FC’s gain, as through 8 appearances she has a goal and an assist. Onumonu’s production since she joined the team may be as simple as she just needed a change of scenery, but for her, she just wants a chance to play. Give her a chance to play and she will return the investment as best as she can.
“My time in Portland taught me a lot. It’s not as though I woke up and decided to start playing. It definitely was a progression. When I joined Reign, all I asked for was an opportunity and I was given that. So I want to basically make good on that. I’m loving this team. I’m gonna perform for them and try my hardest.”
You might be noticing some themes with what the players I spoke to said after training. Specifically, how the word family appears with some frequency. That is very much the culture at Reign FC and certainly all of the injuries on top of the absences brought on by the World Cup have tested the squad’s depth. That test has also galvanized the squad to be able to count on each other. Yes, there is still plenty of soccer left for them to play and there is virtually no room for error for any team in this league that wants to be in the playoffs.
So what is the state of Reign FC if you ask head coach Vlatko Andonovski? Here’s what he had to say.
“Where we’re at right now, I wouldn’t say great. I would say okay, I wanna say respectable. And the reason I’m saying that is because I want to be first place, I don’t want to be fourth place,” Andonovski said.
“At the same time, considering all of the adversities and challenges we’ve had to overcome, I think we’re in a very good position. If somebody told me that we’re going to collect 20 points with all of these players missing (to the World Cup) or injured, and (at times) going into training with 8 or 9 players, then playing against some of the best teams in the league and getting points away, I would say it’s impossible, but I’m just proud that the players have stepped up.”
And as you’ve seen, some of these players have only joined the team a month or two into the campaign. With six players on the Season Ending Injury list, Andonovski and Reign FC co-owner and president Bill Predmore have been very busy in signing players. Fans can be forgiven if they’ve lost count of how many new faces have put on a Reign FC shirt so far in the season, because there’s been a lot. Now that the World Cup is over, the team is getting their full complement of World Cup players back that we knew were going at the start of the season, in addition to more new faces that were also in France for the tournament. Getting everyone acclimated is a challenge for Andonovski and his coaching staff, but it’s one he welcomes.
“It’s challenging because as much as the World Cup players coming back already know it, they know it, but they don’t. They come back and there are about five players they don’t even know their names. It’s not easy, but at the same time, what helps the most is that we have a clear understanding of what this culture is all about. And we do have a clear understanding of what our style of play is. Everybody knows, everybody understands, especially the ones that have been here for a while. They’re the ones driving the culture. They’re the ones that are helping the new players acclimate to the culture. And us as the coaching staff, the technical staff are the ones helping the players acclimate in terms of playing style and (their) specific roles on the team.”
It’s always fascinating to hear from Reign FC players and the head coach at the halfway point of any season. On one hand, they’re happy where they are. On the other hand, they know nothing is done and there is a lot of soccer to play. The 2019 season so far has been quite the test for Andonovski’s squad. To hear him be proud of every player stepping up, and in a lot of cases going above and beyond to get results, is music to every Reign FC fan’s ears. Yet, hearing him not being content with just currently sitting in a playoff spot and wanting to being at the top of the table is probably the more favorable song. And they’ll certainly have their chance on Sunday to not only stay but climb up in the table as they host the Chicago Red Stars, who sit just above them in third.
And they’ll do so in front of a record-setting crowd. You may have heard the club state that over 7,000 tickets have been distributed for the match. It’s not hyperbole as it was reinforced to me at Tuesday’s training that, yes, they are expecting a lot of people in the stands. The biggest one ever for a Reign FC home match. The final number will come at some point during the match on Sunday, but ahead of that, I asked the players and Andonovski what they had to say for the fans coming on Sunday and in some cases, it will be their first ever Reign FC match.
“We need all of their strength and support,” said defender Celia Jiménez Delgado. Bev Yanez said, “I hope they enjoy themselves, I hope they have a lot of fun. I hope we put on a great performance.” Ifeoma Onumonu said, “Expect a show. This is gonna be a hard game and it’s gonna be a fun game to watch. If you’re going to come to any game this season, this is one of them to come to. Enjoy yourself, have fun, drink (laughs), cheer.”
And lastly, here’s head coach Vlatko Andonovski’s message to fans coming on Sunday, “It’s gonna be a great show. They’re going to see on the field, probably ten or more players that were in the World Cup less than a month ago. You’re going to see some of the best players in the world, right here in Tacoma. Enjoy the show, enjoy everything that happens on the field and hopefully they like it and we’ll see them in the following games.”
Other tidbits and observations from Tuesday’s training:
- Allie Long was a full participant at training, while Megan Rapinoe was in limited activities. We still expect both to be available for selection for Sunday’s match against Chicago Red Stars, as Rapinoe likely and understandably could use a bit more rest after the media tour she’s been on after the World Cup.
- Midfielder Rumi Utsugi was an observer at Tuesday’s training as she recovers from a calf injury.
- In my chat with Bev Yanez, she said she’s feeling good since her early exit in the July 13 match at North Carolina.
- It should be noted that this was the team’s second training session after a bye week and that Friday’s league injury report will give a better picture of where the squad is health-wise.
- Andonovski said goalkeeper Michelle Betos (right Achilles) and midfielder Jess Fishlock (left ACL) are rehabilitating fine and on schedule.
Lastly, this is more of a heads up from us at Ride of the Valkyries. If you are coming to Sunday’s match, plan your travel accordingly. Traffic in and out of Cheney Stadium is going to be heavy as attendance for the match is going to be, well, historic for the club. The current Reign FC home attendance record is 6,303 set in 2015 — yep, the first match after the United States won the World Cup back then. That record is expected to be shattered on Sunday. And as the players have stated above, they expect Cheney Stadium to be rocking and nothing but energy from kickoff to the full time whistle.
If you would rather not deal with the stress of driving, there is still the Rally Bus option if you are coming from the north. There are three pickup options (Northgate Mall, Downtown Seattle at King Street Station in Pioneer Square, and Southcenter Mall) and it’s for round-trip service. You can eat and drink during the ride, and as of writing this, there are less than 40 spots available on the bus.