On Tuesday morning, OL Reign general manager Lesle Gallimore and head coach Laura Harvey spoke with media over Zoom for the club's end-of-season press conference, ten days after their defeat in the NWSL Championship against Gotham FC.
This offseason will be Gallimore's first as general manager of the Reign, when she was appointed to the role back in May, succeeding Nick Perera. Gallimore's opening remarks summarized the club's accomplishments on the field, highlighting the number one overall seed in the NWSL Challenge Cup, and making it all the way to the aforementioned NWSL Championship, emphasizing that all of it should be credited to Harvey.
"Major kudos to the manager of our club Laura Harvey – obviously, the first coach in the league to reach 200 regular season [games coached]. I thought Laura did a masterful job of meshing our veteran players, which we have quite a few, with our younger players, which we also have quite a few, and that all culminated in quite a season; we were the No. 1 seed in the Challenge Cup, we were obviously a finalist and came up just a goal short in what was a fairly dramatic national championship in the NWSL this year," said Gallimore.
As for Gallimore and how she's looking forward to her first offseason with an expansion draft three weeks away on December 15, she chuckled and questioned if she's truly settled in, but expressed appreciation in having an experienced staff to help her get ramped up throughout the season.
"It’s been a lot all at once, but it’s been great. I have a lot of great people around me and obviously there are multiple things that are spinning in the air simultaneously – the expansion draft, free agency, the fact that it was a World Cup year, the retirement of Megan Rapinoe and to get plopped down about a month before the World Cup hit, when we were in an interesting position in the club, it was a lot to take in, but I think it’s been really good getting the feel for where our players are, where the club is and obviously the biggest thing for me was to be able to extend Laura’s contract and I think that gave a lot more certainty to our direction for our players. So, for me, it’s been a ton of fun and obviously to get to the Championship game. Yael Averbuch (Gotham FC general manager) is a good friend of mine and clearly we wanted to win that game and we were disappointed that we didn’t, but it would’ve almost been a little bit unfair to how the work she’s put in over there and for me to just kind of float in and be a part of a title, but it’s been great. We're excited about the future, but these last five, six months have been tremendous and we’re looking forward to all of the things that are coming up, including (the) roster."
"Live through free agency."
OL Reign goes into this offseason with five free agents, both restricted and unrestricted. The headliners of that five are midfielders Rose Lavelle and Emily Sonnett, both of whom are unrestricted free agents. Midfielder Nikki Stanton is the third unrestricted free agent, while forward Tziarra King and midfielder Angelina are restricted free agents. The latter two can entertain offers from other NWSL teams, and the Reign have seven days to match that competing offer and keep them in a Reign jersey for 2024.
Gallimore said that communications with Lavelle and Sonnett are constant and both know what the Reign are building and how integral each of them are in it.
"They both know that they’re a huge part of our project and clearly, we’re going to work really hard to re-sign both of them. I think ending the season as late as we did, expansion draft coming, there’s all timing issues with them, but there are ongoing discussions just about daily that we feel good about," said Gallimore.
Obviously, Harvey would love to have all of the free agents re-sign with the club and keep it going with what they're building here and hopefully finally claim that elusive NWSL Championship, but she also knows the long and hard road the players have had to pave in order to have free agency, so those who have qualified for it, can have some agency and power for themselves and choose where they want to play.
"I said this last year with our free agents, they should live through it. I think the expansion draft adds an extra wrinkle to that – they know that if they’re still free, they can’t be picked. So, that gives them some power to their own destiny outside of wherever they choose their next destination to be. As Lesle says, I think everyone knows that we really value Rose and Sonnett, they’re a huge part of our team. I think Sonnett’s evolution this year has been exceptional and Rose has obviously had a tough year, but you saw that at the back end of the season what she can do and they know that we love them and we want them to stay here. But, I do think that every player, and we advise in this, should live through free agency and see what it looks like for them," said Harvey.
NWSL teams can announce free-agent signings right now, but so far only the expansion teams Bay FC and the returning Utah Royals FC have made such announcements. The other NWSL teams know that if they announce any free agent signings, it becomes a juggling act of if that newly-signed player comes at the expense of leaving another player unprotected for the expansion draft as Harvey mentioned. It's prudent for the Reign and all other NWSL teams to not get those signings in until after the expansion draft. It may make these next few weeks boring and anxious in terms of wondering whether impact players like Lavelle and Sonnett re-sign with the Reign, but the rest of the teams in the league are in similar situations with their impact players who are also exploring the free agency market, perhaps for the first time in their lives.
Expansion Draft Prep
Some NWSL teams have made trades with the expansion teams for protection for the expansion draft, mostly protection from one team, but not the other. While Gallimore didn't tip her hand, she did say the club is considering it, as well as strategizing this offseason without having any sort of expansion draft protection.
"I think we are looking at expansion draft protection. Clearly, it would be good to have it – one, just so we can continue to focus on what else we want to do during the trade window. So yeah, we’re going to continue to look at those opportunities as options. We wanted to meet with our players first, obviously, last week and again, the timing of being in the Championship, having player meetings and being in discussions with other clubs about protection are all kind of right on top of each other. So yeah, those discussions are ongoing and we obviously have plans for having protection and not having protection. I think that those things are just all – we’re in the middle of all of it," said Gallimore.
OL Reign's sale
An NWSL offseason in general is a lot of work for everyone involved, from office staff all the way up to the executive level personnel, and in the case of the Reign it's also done in the backdrop of an impending sale to new owners. Back at NWSL Championship week, NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman reiterated the expectation that the sale of OL Reign will be completed by the end of the calendar year. Same goes with the Reign's Cascadia rivals, Portland Thorns FC. Gallimore was asked if the impending sale to whomever (Sportico reported that the Seattle Sounders FC are in "advanced talks") will play a factor in addressing needs of the roster.
"Players want certainty, right? What we’ve kept professing, and we 100 percent to believe true, is that our club was in a final this year, we’ve been a steady competitor in this league since its inception and ownership and the investment as you’ve seen across the league in new ownership and sales, it’s all positive. So, our players, I know that they’re convinced that whatever happens with the sale that things are going to continue to improve and evolve like they have around the rest of the league. But, how that ties into free agency and re-signing players, it’s part of it, it’s part of the process, but I do think just free agency, in general being new to these players, is something that is also making it part of the process – their timing, with expansion, with the investment, with salaries – where they are and where they’re going – it’s just part of it. So, we feel comfortable that we’re approaching it the right way with our players and that’s kind of where we are. I don’t think the sale – I don’t think it plays into it as much as maybe people think it would," said Gallimore.
"This is my place, it’s where I belong."
The presser ended with a question for Harvey being asked what drives her and brought her back to the Reign for a second stint. She was the club's first coach from 2013 to 2017 and returned to the club halfway through the 2021 season. Her answer was a poignant monologue.
"When you start something from zero, and I mean zero, even when I wasn’t here, I was always rooting for it to be successful. I think, yeah, maybe the silverware piece of not getting the championship is a driver. When Bill Predmore (then OL Reign CEO) called me when I was at U.S. Soccer to come back, his line was, ‘We have unfinished business,’ and that was it, I didn’t need any more incentive than that. I love Seattle as a city. I think it’s so invested in sport there and its sports teams and that’s only growing every year that I’ve lived there."
"I think that there will be a day, maybe, that I want to go home, I just don’t think that that day is quite right now and one of the biggest reasons for that is the Reign and not only how I feel about the Reign but how they have committed to me through tough times in the early days and through the good times of recent years. Obviously, we’re still chasing this one thing that we truly want as a club, but I think as long as we continue to do all the right things in the right way, having the best interest of the club at heart, and wanting to put the players' interests first, then it’s a place that I can’t ever see myself not wanting to be."
"There’s always probably a timeline where that day will end, I don’t know when that is, but yeah, I love being able to look out my window and see some orcas swimming past and I love being able to live pretty close to LA, where I can come home and see my family because my brother lives here and me and my partner have a house here. So yeah, I feel very immersed in the American culture and as much as England will always be home, I definitely feel like I’ve found a second home, for sure."
The next key date in the NWSL offseason will be the 2024 NWSL Expansion Draft on Friday, December 15 and will air live on CBS Sports Network with coverage beginning at 7 p.m. ET. Rules and procedures of the expansion draft can be found here.