In our hour-long chat with Reign FC CEO Bill Predmore, we talked about a lot of subjects, most importantly the appointment of Farid Benstiti as the club’s new head coach. Benstiti will be inheriting a squad that finished the 2019 season with 31 players under contract. There have already been some changes to the roster as the club prepares for the 2020 season, but more changes are expected with the ultimate goal of this squad hopefully being the one that finally claims the ultimate prize, the NWSL Championship.
Over the course of our conversation, Predmore shared some insights on the players the club drafted at Thursday’s NWSL College Draft, provided updates on the returns of key players from injuries, and hinted at some further changes to the roster.
Hey did you know the 2019 Reign FC squad was injured?
Anyone who paid any sort of attention to last year’s Reign campaign was aware that their injuries reached epic proportions. The unprecedented string of bad luck was almost mesmerizing, and it was seemingly inexplicable that they still managed to qualify for the playoffs before ultimately losing on the road in extra time to the eventual champions, North Carolina Courage, in the semi-final round.
As each season starts anew, the off-season always brings about excitement over which new faces could be joining the team. Typically across most sports, an off-season trade or draft pick represents this hope and excitement. In Reign FC’s situation this year, however, the returns of long-absent impact players will be just as big as a brand-new signing. Especially when one of those returns is a dragon.
Jess Fishlock’s return to lead the midfield is on track from her torn ACL, which limited her 2019 NWSL season to just five matches. “Jess has been in Australia recovering, working with a trainer every day, mostly on strength right now, getting her leg and body to a place where she’ll be ready to go,” said Predmore. “I think in the beginning of February, she will be ready to do some light contact work and we expect her to be completely or pretty close to ready to go for pre-season.” Predmore did add that they want to make sure she doesn’t overdo or rush her rehab, but he knows that not only does she have the personal expectation to be ready for Reign FC, but the prospect of claiming a spot on Team Great Britain for the Tokyo Summer Olympic games is just as big of a motivator. “To make that squad, she’ll have to put in some fantastic performances for us, and she’s putting herself in a position to be ready physically to do so. If I was allowed to bet on things, my bet would be she has a streak of 8 or so games to start the season that’ll be unbelievable,” said Predmore about what fans can hopefully look forward to from Fishlock to kick off the 2020 season.
Another player who will return to the field this season and make her debut for the club is defender Taylor Smith. Smith signed with Reign FC in early 2019 while still recovering from a torn ACL sustained playing in Australia in December 2018. “Taylor is back training and has been for months now. We’re focused on getting her fit, but the knee has recovered,” said Predmore. On forward Jasmyne Spencer, who also sustained a torn ACL on the opening match of the 2019 season, Predmore said “The knee should be in a good spot, but we need to get her back in town in the next couple of weeks and then focusing on fitness to be ready to go for preseason.”
And while she didn’t sustain a season-long injury, forward Megan Rapinoe had a 2019 which very few professional athletes can even imagine. In the pursuit of repeating as FIFA World Cup champions, Rapinoe was front and center on the global stage and transcended to another level of celebrity, becoming a cultural icon. She won Golden Ball and Golden Boot honors and went on a media tour that made us all wonder how she found time to catch a breath or even sleep. She only made six appearances for Reign FC after the World Cup and definitely was not the impact player she had been the past couple of seasons. Predmore described Rapinoe’s situation as being similar to Fishlock’s, saying, “She’s got to be playing her way into getting ready for the Olympics and we expect to see some strong performances from her in those first 8-10 games of the season before the Olympics.”
Goalkeeper Michelle Betos had her 2019 season cut short due to rupturing an Achilles tendon, and when we had her on the “Coffee & Valkyries” podcast last season she expressed her determination to return to the field as fast as humanly possible. Predmore said of Betos’ progress, “Cleared by doctors maybe six weeks ago, so she’s fully ready and available and we expect her and (Casey) Murphy to be competing for the No. 1 spot. Betos is a machine and I think she’ll be fully fit and ready to go.”
While an official announcement hasn’t been released, it sounds all-but-confirmed that goalkeepers Lydia Williams and Sammy Jo Prudhomme will not be returning to the club in 2020. Predmore said of their statuses, “At the end of the season, we sat down with both Lydia and Sammy Jo, and I think both are looking to be in positions where they have more opportunity to get on the pitch. Samy Jo is looking (for a situation) where she can get into that No. 2 spot and work her way into the No. 1.” Of Williams, Predmore said, “She needs to be in a situation where she’s getting games every week. No guarantees at any team, but if she was to remain here, I have no doubt she’d be competing for that No. 1 spot with Betos and Murphy, but it’s less certain she’d be getting those games here.”
This past Thursday was the 2020 NWSL College Draft and the club selected three players — Santa Clara University’s Kelcie Hedge, Stanford’s Sam Hiatt, and Nebraska’s Meg Brandt. The selections were part of the club’s plan to get younger, an initiative that began under Vlatko Andonovski’s tenure. With the midfield having the majority of players in their 30s, that area was paramount for the club to get younger and Hedge at the ninth overall pick was a target. In drafting Hiatt, Predmore said she is a more long-term project as she will be continuing to take classes at Stanford through May and won’t be joining the team until June at the earliest. With league expansion looming for 2021, and an expectation from Predmore that at least two new clubs will be joining the league, Hiatt’s place on the squad could have a clearer road map then as the club will need to plan its roster accordingly ahead of an expansion draft. With Brandt, Predmore gave full credit to assistant coach Sam Laity for doing most of the scouting; his assessment of the Nebraska forward/midfielder was “special.” When it became apparent she would be available near the end of the fourth round, the club made a trade with rival Portland Thorns for an extra draft pick to acquire her. Overall, Predmore was satisfied with the selections as they fit to the overall plans for the roster, as they will fill out the depth chart. Hopefully with the correct player development and a little bit of luck, they can be consistent contributors to the first team in years to come.
Thank you so much @ReignFC for giving me this amazing opportunity! It’s a dream come true to be back home playing in Washington, and I can’t wait to get started!— Sam Hiatt (@samhiatt16) January 16, 2020
Shortly before we chatted with Predmore, the club announced a trade with Sky Blue FC, which saw the Reign swap forward Ifeoma Onumonu for defender Julia Ashley. Predmore said of Ashley, “We’ve been working to get [a trade] done for a long time, but it was tough to have to send Iffy that way. Obviously she was great for us last season, particularly during our injury-plagued back half of the season, but I think Julia will be a terrific talent for us.”
With still a month before even pre-season starts, there are still other moves the club will announce and Predmore hinted at other new faces joining the team. The announcement of increases in minimum and maximum player salary and the mechanism of allocation money opens the possibilities for teams to get creative with bringing in new players. And with Reign FC now under the OL Groupe, there is the prospect of a wider network from which Predmore and staff can scout and identify a player and hopefully bring them in to play for the club. “We do not have anything finalized right now, but I would say that there are roughly half a dozen conversations we’re having with players. The timing is a little bit tricky this year with the Olympics and Euro qualifiers complicating things slightly, but I can say that we’ll be working very hard to get at least one new international in the door this season.”
Of course if there are new players coming in, there must be some players heading out. It’s never fun to say goodbye to fan favorites, but no team is immune to roster turnover and with Reign FC ending 2019 with 31 players under contract, there will be some painful goodbyes. Beyond the previously mentioned departures, there’s also Theresa Nielsen returning home to Denmark to play for Brøndby IF. Goalkeeper Scout Watson and forward Jaycie Johnson were released back in November 2019 after not having their club options exercised.
I just want to take the opportunity to say huge thanks to everyone in and around Reign fc. I had the best time and I will always remember it as something special. I will miss being part of this special family - but I will send all my love. Good luck in the future. #LetitReign pic.twitter.com/KUAfkY1qsL— Theresa Eslund Nielsen (@NielsenTheresa8) November 26, 2019
Predmore did not disclose any names, opting to wait and give each player their proper moments, but did say some retirements and other departures will be announced in the weeks to come. Perhaps the first of those announcements is from forward Addie Steiner, who announced on social media yesterday that she is planning to “take some time off from playing pro.”
The trials and tribulations of the 2019 season made that squad special, and had they advanced in the playoffs, it definitely would have attained mythical status. However, the harsh reality of a new season was always going to yield some turnover and unfortunately there will be some hard goodbyes as the club prepares for this season.
With the landscape of the NWSL changing, Reign FC definitely have their work cut out to remain competitive. There is plenty of time remaining to shape the roster before the players put on their boots and begin training drills. The season will start in its customary mid-April weekend. Time will tell if CEO Bill Predmore and head coach Farid Benstiti have constructed a roster that can return to the playoffs for the third season in a row and win the big prize that has eluded the club so far.