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Reign FC have been aggressive but not panicked with roster moves this season

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“It feels like six hundred (roster moves).” - Reign FC co-owner/president Bill Predmore

Nikita Taparia

The 2019 season has been one of the most memorable campaigns for Reign FC.

While the season is not over, even with a month left to play, you can’t help but wonder where this squad would be if there wasn’t a comically absurd amount of injuries afflicting this team.

Not only has every Reign FC player been pushed physically and mentally because of the series of unfortunate events, but the same can be said about the people at the helm of the club: head coach, Vlatko Andonovski, and co-owner and president, Bill Predmore.

Tasked with addressing the needs of the roster to make sure they can field enough starters for a league that shows no mercy like the NWSL, the objective also comes with the twist of this squad being one of the older sides. Coming into this season, Reign FC still had the most players on the active roster that were also playing for the club in the inaugural 2013 season. Jess Fishlock, Lauren Barnes, and Megan Rapinoe can still go in this league, but they have logged a lot of soccer miles.

It’s a big enough task in general to integrate younger talent to a squad of veterans that can definitely still compete as a playoff contender now and for seasons to come. Add in the context of this season being a World Cup year and the injuries that have been such a talking point all season long, it’s really fascinating to look into the process of how Andonovski and Predmore have addressed it.


ANATOMY OF A RELOAD

Vlatko Andonovski was announced as the new head coach of Reign FC on November 7, 2017.

He was brought in to shape and guide the team in his vision with the objective of them becoming title contenders once again. At a season kickoff party the following March, fans got their proper introduction to Andonovski and a preview of what mix of players he thought would be the recipe. Allie Long, Steph Catley, Megan Oyster, and Morgan Andrews, were some of the new faces Andonovski and Predmore brought in that offseason. Eleven new players in total. As much of a question mark that it was for Reign FC fans, it surely was the same for outsiders and curious minds about what Reign FC were going to be under Andonovski’s helm. Was this an outright rebuild as we commonly define in sports, where you punt the present and play for the future? Heart and soul of the team, Jess Fishlock sure didn’t think so on that evening in March.

“We have to wipe the slate clean in regards to what’s happened in the past and where we want to go in the future. I said it earlier and I’ll say it now, this is new, but it isn’t. We are the Seattle Reign. Who we are, what we want to do, how we want to be, doesn’t change just because we’ve brought in a new coach and new players. We’ve brought in a new coach who represents who we are and we’ve brought on new players who represent who we are. I’m super excited to put the past behind us a little bit and move forward with the group of players that we’ve got.

If we didn’t believe in what we were doing, we would just leave. The quality of the girls we have here and possess who have been here for the amount of time, if they didn’t believe that this was gonna work, they would leave to be successful somewhere else because we don’t have much time left in our careers. Lulu, Bev, Pinoe, me, our careers are probably going to come to an end pretty soon and so we just wouldn’t be here unless we truly believed that this was genuinely the best thing for this club.

So I say trust the club that you’ve supported for six years, the decisions that have been made are to ensure this club gets back to being what it should be. We have a high expectation for ourselves, we have a high standard we have set to ourselves and for the last two years we have failed. We have been unsuccessful, so the change had to happen to make us be who we are.

So don’t view it as we’re not the Reign anymore, view it as we’re going to be the Reign again. That’s what we want. To be successful, to get the championships.

This isn’t a new Reign, it’s the Reign. It’s the old Reign, coming back to be successful.”

And the 2018 squad came back perhaps louder than a lot of people thought they would. The 2018 squad finished third in the regular season, qualifying for the playoffs, and ultimately losing to rival Portland Thorns FC in the semifinal.

The club’s offseason activity didn’t take long after that to prepare for 2019.

When Reign FC completed their inaugural season in 2013 under Laura Harvey’s helm, she and Predmore did not waste any time in basically building a brand new team. Yes, the core pieces were there like the aforementioned Fishlock, Barnes, Keelin Winters, Rapinoe, and Hope Solo. In would come Kim Little, Bev Yanez, and Nahomi Kawasumi and the rest was history. Two years of regular season dominance resulted in two NWSL Shields for best regular season record and two trips to the NWSL Championship game. Where Vlatko Andonovski thwarted the plans for ultimate glory. Twice.

Going into this season we knew Reign FC, like all teams in the NWSL, would make a lot of moves to keep roster spots filled — being a World Cup year and in the case of injuries.

Still, to see a soccer team at any level make this many moves in a season that is still on-going, is approaching something you typically see in a baseball or American football team.

It sure hasn’t been Andonovski or Predmore’s choice. Six players listed on the Season Ending Injury list, their work has been cut out to say the least. Yet the amazing and equally strange thing about the moves made is that none of them have come with an air of desperation. The moves the club has made this season have been to address the immediate needs to make sure they can field eleven players, but they are moves that help fill in depth for next season and beyond.

“I think Bill has done an incredible job of following all of the (player) movements in the US and around the world,” Andonovski told me after a team’s training session in late July. Reign FC co-owner and president Bill Predmore has indeed kept his ears to the ground and surely his mobile phone active in talking with players and their agents who are available to come to Reign FC. “Not just experienced players, but the younger players that came out of the draft recently. He’s been a tremendous help and has been able to find players that are able to help.”

The unbelievably bad luck with season-ending injuries for Reign FC have kept the two busier than they could have ever imagined this season, but it hasn’t pulled them away from their overall course in rebuilding the squad when Andonovski took over in late 2017. “We do have an agenda in terms of restructuring the team a little bit. That started towards the end of last year. We started making moves in the offseason. We said we wanted to get the team a little bit younger, more energetic. I think that the mix of young and experienced players is the right mix for success,” said Andonovski.

Over the course of Reign FC’s history, the club has acquired some established names in the women’s game. Before coming to Reign FC, Andonovski did have his share of US national team mainstays during his time at FC Kansas City (since relocated & rebranded as Utah Royals FC), but his ability to discover virtually unknowns and develop them into impact players is why he has two NWSL Championships on his resume.

His arrival to the Puget Sound brought on the question of: What can Vlatko Andonovski do with a wealth of resources like Reign FC and Predmore’s skill in negotiation and recruitment?

Landing names like Steph Catley and Allie Long definitely retain Reign FC’s ability to grab the headline here and there, but much like his days at Kansas City, Andonovski can still find that diamond in the rough and by investing time and trust, the talent unlocks. Case in point, Bethany Balcer and Ifeoma Onumonu.

Andonovski:

Every player that has been in this league has some quality. You don’t make it to the NWSL if you don’t have quality. Now it’s the patience, the belief, the care, and the time we’re willing to put into it with the players. We’ve talked about Bethany Balcer’s story, but it’s the same thing with Ifeoma – are we willing to give them a chance? Are we willing to spend time with them, to help them develop. Are we willing to show them that we care or are we going to just focus on Pinoe, Jodie, Allie, and Jess? Everybody knows that for us (the coaches) we want to help everyone. Our goal is to make everyone a better player and to help everyone develop as much as possible and we believe if we make everyone eventually, the team is going to get better. So that’s why we’ve spent time with these players and it’s almost like they’re paying us back.

Another player that Andonovski and Predmore acquired is goalkeeper Casey Murphy. When the club announced her arrival in May, the expectation was she would be backup to Michelle Betos while Lydia Williams was at the World Cup with Australia. Three days later, Betos ruptures her right Achilles tendon and Murphy is thrown right into the fire with a start against the defending champions North Carolina Courage the following week. As we’ve seen over the course of the season, Murphy can more than hang in the NWSL and for a lot of watchers of the league, it was seen as a revelation that Murphy can gel so quickly into the team.

It turns out Murphy was someone the team had been scouting since November and very much wanted her, independent of the context of losing their two established goalkeepers.

“We had our eye on her during last season and we hoped her rights would become available and they did,” said Predmore of getting Murphy. He spoke of similar scenarios that resulted in the club signing players like Rebecca Quinn, Taylor Smith, and Rosie White. A high level overview of how NWSL rights work is they last for the season a player was drafted, like Murphy for example. Those rights expire when the calendar turns over to the new season and the club that had their rights elect to not retain them. Retaining them can be achieved through many mechanisms like offering a new contract. But if the rights are forfeited, then the other teams in the league can put in a discovery claim. It’s that monitoring of if/when a player’s rights are available that has made the multitude of moves possible for Reign FC.

And with those moves comes a question of where exactly is the salary cap room coming from? League rules allow cap relief if a player is lost for the season to an injury and tagged with the SEI designation. With six players on SEI, it’s safe to say they have plenty of room to afford the acquisition. Predmore used Fishlock as an example where with her being one of the senior players and on the higher end of salary, going on SEI has created the cap relief room for them to sign a couple of players that would total up to her salary.

The amount of moves the club has made this season has been staggering, and you can’t be blamed for losing track of how many there have been. A look at their season Wikipedia page lists all official moves and it’s somewhere around sixty. When I asked Predmore if he had an exact count, he joked that it “felt more like 600.” The amount of moves this season has drawn comparisons to the offseason between the 2013 and 2014 squad, and Predmore understood the similarities, though the volume this season definitely has been noticeable given the context of the injuries.


HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE NWSL EXPANSION

It’s coming.

Probably one of the worst-kept secrets about the future of the NWSL is that expansion teams are coming. Recently, Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson spilled the beans about how many teams and when. Predmore didn’t add anything to Paulson’s comments about expansion, but did say the process in which they’ve built this roster is to prepare for however many expansion drafts are in the league’s future. He went as far to say that because of the number of players that have been injured and their ability to add more players has them better equipped to withstand any loss of players because of an expansion draft.

Certainly, fielding 30+ players this season has given a lot more players various levels of times to show other teams what they can do on the field and the reality is, no team is outright safe from losing a player or two to an expansion draft. In Reign FC’s case, if they lose say a player that would normally be third choice on the depth chart, it’s a loss they feel they can mitigate next season. The flip side to that is the club will have their work cut out for them when they have set their initial list of protected players and have to gamble that the next player they wanted to protect isn’t picked up by the would-be new team on the block.

“It’s probably two, three more weeks before those are finalized and everyone votes on them and executed at an appropriate time,” said Predmore on the expansion draft rules and format, saying it should be similar to past expansion drafts when Houston Dash and Orlando Pride joined the league in 2014 and 2015 respectively. He did stop it there regarding a bigger timetable as to when the league will officially announce expansion, saying establishing the expansion draft format is just part of the process. A lot more has to be agreed upon by the league, the existing owners, and prospective owners who want to join the league, but everyone knows it’s coming.


A BOLD FUTURE

With six games to go in the regular season, Reign FC are just a point outside of the final playoff spot. There is no room for error for them. They have to start picking up the full three points in their remaining matches. In the separate times I talked with Andonovski and Predmore about the state of the team in the context of what a roller coaster ride it’s been for them, both expressed optimism that despite the challenges and just getting to know the name of the newest player brought on, let alone developing a game plan, this team can still get the points to claim a top four spot and into the NWSL playoffs.

I asked Predmore about the general state of those that are on the injured list and their respective recoveries. Predmore proceeded to go through just about each player.

Obviously, the biggest name on the list of injured players has been Megan Rapinoe who has yet to take the field for Reign FC this season. When the club was playing against Sky Blue FC on August 18, the broadcast said the hope was she would return after the FIFA break. In chatting with Predmore, he said that’s been the target for the Reign FC forward and she’s looking to be on track to be available for selection for the match against Orlando Pride on Saturday. He said the same of midfielder Rumi Utsugi and former assistant coach turned un-retired Steph Cox has a small chance to also be available for selection for Saturday’s match.

Goalkeeper Lydia Williams will be back with the team this week after having surgery on her ankle in Australia after injuring it at the World Cup. Forward Shea Groom is recovering well from her rib injury sustained at the August 18 match and, while he didn’t have a solid timetable for her return, the hope is she would be available for selection for the final two matches (vs. Portland Thorns or at Orlando Pride).

For the players with longer injuries, Predmore said Fishlock, Jasmyne Spencer, Taylor Smith, and Michelle Betos are all making great progress with their respective rehabs and should all be good to go for preseason next year. With Smith, there’s a possibility she might play in Australia’s W-League as is often the tradition for NWSL players, as Predmore said she’s in the latter stages of her rehab plan. Predmore even had an amusing line when talking about Betos’ rehab from her torn Achilles injury saying, “I think if we let her, she would try and come back this season.”

Can’t exactly be too surprised to hear Betos would be that aggressive in her rehab, as when she was on “Coffee & Valkyries” back in June, she said she was a month ahead of schedule. No one likes sitting on the sidelines because they physically can’t play. Especially no one on this squad that loves to play for each other, because they are a family, as we so often have heard about this team.

Predmore was also quick to praise Andonovski’s performance so far this season. “I think he’s done better than anybody could have reasonably expected. The fact that we’re a point out, I feel very good about it,” Predmore shared. “The teams ahead of us are all very good and it’s going to be tough getting into that top four. But for those last six games, we’re going to be bringing in the Golden Boot winner, so from an emotional perspective and impact on the field, Rapione could be massive in helping us make that push to get into the top four.”

And if Reign FC do return to the NWSL Playoffs, you won’t find many people that would argue against him being a surefire candidate for NWSL Coach of the Year honors.

And certainly would only raise his profile that much more as far as being a candidate as the next head coach of the United States Women’s National Team.

Predmore is aware of the possibility of losing Andonovski to arguably one of the most high profile coaching jobs in soccer. While Andonovski is in the final year of his contract with Reign FC, Predmore said his contract status with the club doesn’t matter – if the opportunity is presented to Andonovski to coach the USWNT and that is something he wants to do, Predmore said he will not get in the way.

“He knows I feel that way, we’ve had that conversation. He’ll be here unless the US national team and he agree on him taking over that job.”

Obviously if Andonovski were to leave Reign FC for a national team coaching opportunity, the vision and plans of rebuilding and reloading the Reign FC squad would change, but it’s something that would be addressed if/when that day does come and Predmore is looking for a new head coach.

At the end though, it’s all speculative. The immediate future of Reign FC lies within these remaining six regular season games and they’ll step towards that yet-written future one match at a time. A team that went into the start of the season with not much change from the 2018 squad and looked to have the depth to handle the World Cup departures has ended up pulling myriad of roster moves. And through those moves, Reign FC fans are discovering new favorite players that hopefully will be part of a new rising youth core to go with the Reign FC Originals.

This is the mad genius of Vlatko Andonovski and Bill Predmore. And, perhaps, the ultimate test of squad depth and ability to get the most out of every player from World Cup champion to virtual unknown could bring forth the ultimate prize — the NWSL Championship.