The Seattle Reign have made 18 transactions since the end of their disappointing inaugural season, setting themselves up for a massive turnaround.
SEATTLE — The Internet is a pretty fabulous/awful place. There are sites for all kinds of things, to suit any fancy. As it happens, there’s one with which any fan of the Seattle Reign should be very familiar: HasLauraHarveyMadeATradeToday.com.
The site is simple and, really, quite self-explanatory. Each day, it’s updated. When the Reign’s head coach and general manager makes a trade, it says "Yes." When she hasn’t, it says "No." There’s some music that accompanies it. Nothing too fancy.
Up until the NWSL’s roster freeze on Dec. 10, it was actually a pretty handy tool. No team has been more active this offseason than the Reign, who finished seventh in the inaugural year of the eight-team league. The Reign have made nine trades and 18 separate transactions, completely overhauling a roster that had effectively been thrown together on the fly.
The biggest moves were the series of moves that ultimately led to the Reign’s ability to land Pacific Northwest native and rising United States national team star Sydney Leroux and sign Kim Little, the former Arsenal Ladies midfield dynamo.
Still three months away from the season-opener, the Reign are poised for a dramatic turnaround, both on the field and off.
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"I don’t know if it was a necessary thing, but it was probably the realistic thing that was going to happen," Reign owner Bill Predmore said between cups of coffee. "Any organization that has to be completely reactive is going to make a lot of mistakes along the way.
"The reality was there wasn’t time for planning. We didn’t really know until this time last year that this thing was going to happen. There was no opportunity to have long-range plans. We hit the ground running, everything just had to happen."
In the run-up to the inaugural NWSL campaign, the general consensus was that the Portland Thorns were the class of the league. They had the biggest stars — Canada’s Christine Sinclair and arguably the most marketable name in the game, Alex Morgan — and the most complete infrastructure as an arm of the MLS’s Portland Timbers.
The belief, at least among casual observers, was that the Reign weren’t that far behind. Seattle was a proven soccer market — especially in light of the success seen by the W-League’s Sounders Women the year before. They also had three players with considerable star power and United States national team experience in Hope Solo, Megan Rapinoe and Amy Rodriguez and a head coach with a sterling resume in Laura Harvey.
But the season did not exactly go as planned. Initial season-ticket sales didn’t meet expectations, all three of the U.S. national team players missed the first half of the season and the Reign stumbled to a 0-9-1 start. Although the Reign went on a 5-0-2 run to get back into the playoff contention that was sparked by the return of Solo and Rapinoe, they ultimately fell short. They wasted little time doing their best to ensure that there would be no repeat of 2013.
"Having some time to plan, I think we’re going to be pretty good about mapping out the strategy of how we want the business to run," Predmore said. "But also how to get the right players and have a great on-field product. We’ll know at the end of August next year if we were good at it or not great at it. We certainly feel a lot more confident about what we’re putting together on this day than we were a few months ago."
The biggest obstacle facing the Reign at this time a year ago was that they had barely even existed in any appreciable way prior to being awarded the NWSL franchise rights in late November. While every other team had some level of infrastructure in place once the franchises were awarded — they had either existed as a professional women’s team or were attached to a men’s team — the Reign were literally starting from scratch.
From the basic task of acquiring a business license to the much more complicated aspects like setting up a way to sell tickets and creating a website — to say nothing of putting together an actual team — all of it had to be done within the span of a few months. It took almost a month before the team even had an official name.
There were perhaps predictable hiccups. Season tickets didn’t go on sale until ten weeks before the start of the season, the website was a glorified place-holder and the team’s Facebook page ended up serving as the main source of news as press releases were often delayed or never sent out. The business operations were a skeleton staff, with only a few employees wearing multiple hats.
Making matters worse, this was all happening in the shadow of the Sounders Women. The W-League team had preceded the Reign by almost 12 years, were coming off a season in which they drew national headlines with their star-studded roster and, despite losing out on their bid to join the NWSL, seemed to be dead set on competing head-to-head. Current Reign players like Solo and Rapinoe featured prominently in the Sounders’ advertising and to the casual observer it appeared as if little had changed.
Especially early on, outside appearances suggested the Reign were in trouble. The Reign opened with three road games — grabbing just one point — and returned home to a seemingly indifferent audience. Three of their first five matches failed to draw as many as 1,500 fans. Attendance eventually picked up, but the Reign still ended the season ranked sixth in the league with an average announced crowd of 2,306.
"People didn’t know about us last year," admitted Predmore, relaying a story about only recently seeing his first piece of Reign gear outside of an official function. "We didn’t do a very good job of making people aware. That will be on us. There’s going to be a grassroots nature to this. I think people are starting to know we exist."
When you’re starting an organization from scratch there are always going to be things that get overlooked. It’s not always on purpose, but it happens.
The Reign had planned to do programs, those mini-magazines that get handed out or sold at virtually every sporting event you've ever been to. They are usually full of ads, and for a well-established team serve little purpose for the fans.
The Reign were not a well-established team.
There were a handful of players that fans might have heard of, but for most supporters even the most basic biographical information was news.
The importance of this kind of information was made apparent by one particular woman during a question-and-answer session.
"In an audience more comprised of women that the Sounders had, she had this insight that women are more likely to look for that emotional connection and we kinda robbed them of that by not having someplace they could read about the players," Predmore said. "It was a really simple thing but it has become this reminder that we have to be obsessive about what people want."
That was just one of "literally 10,000 items" Predmore said he wanted to improve after Year 1.
Predmore insisted there was never an assumption that soccer fans, even of women’s soccer specifically, would naturally gravitate to the Reign. But there was perhaps an underestimation as to how hard it would be to appeal to both groups.
What the MLS Sounders accomplished in their first year was impossible to replicate even on a small scale, Predmore said. The Sounders Women benefited from unique circumstances themselves, not only by being blessed with a stable of talent quite unlike anything the American audience had seen outside of the USWNT, but it all happened in the wake of the WPS’s collapse.
"One of the big realizations was the amount of crossover between the two audiences," Predmore said. "It’s probably less significant than we probably thought. We think there are audiences out there that will be very inclined to have interest in what we’re doing, but it’s not necessarily the Sounders audience.
"What the Sounders did, in the moment it was created, can only work for them. If we try to copy them, we’ll fail. We have to find our own magic. It will be different. We have to figure out what the right amount of magic dust is."
A big part of that will be improving the product on the field.
Although the Reign played a reasonably attractive brand of soccer, based around Harvey’s preferred 4-3-3 formation from her Arsenal days, it didn’t result it nearly enough goals. The Reign found the back of the net just 22 times in 2013, the second lowest total in the league. As bad as the total was, it was a minor miracle they scored that many after scoring just four times in their first ten games.
After the arrival of Rapinoe, the Reign managed to score 18 goals over their final 12 matches. Rapinoe scored five of those to lead the team.
"The thing I underestimated was how important the U.S. national team players are," Harvey said. "We didn’t have any at the start. If you go through every team in the league and look where they ended up finishing, and evaluate their allocation, there are no surprises."
While it may have felt like a lost season, Harvey said it was an important learning process.
"The way I think the game should be played, in my humble opinion, was pretty new to a lot of players," Harvey said. "We started from scratch on a lot of information, things that I take for granted as habit that they had just never heard before. That was something that was a challenge initially, but it was an exciting one because you can take it wherever you want to take it.
"Although we had a really bad run of results, we got a lot of pats on the shoulder and applause really from fans and people in the league for how we wanted to play the game. We wanted to play an enjoyable style of play. that’s probably as satisfying as some of the things that go one."
Aesthetically pleasing or not, Harvey is well aware that the results also needed to follow. And however much she appreciated the buy-in from players, the reality is that she needed more talent.
The most obvious area for improvement was at forward, a position from which the Reign generated just five goals.
Finding a goal-scoring forward is, of course, easier said than done. NWSL roster rules dictated that a trade was going to be the most likely route, and the Reign were going to have get creative.
Luckily the Reign had two big elements on their side. The first was the knowledge that Amy Rodriguez, who had missed 2013 to give birth to her first child, was preparing a comeback and her rights belonged the Reign. Even bigger was learning that Leroux was interested in possibly coming back to the Pacific Northwest, where her family still lives and where she played in 2012 with the Sounders Women.
To get Leroux, the Reign knew they were going to have to offer up more than Rodriguez. A player like Kristie Mewis, the No. 3 pick in the inaugural NWSL college draft and a product of Boston College, was that kind of player the Boston Breakers would need in order to part with Leroux.
Surprisingly, FC Kansas City was interested in Rodriguez and willing to deal Mewis to make it happen.
A couple days after acquiring Mewis, the Reign packaged the midfielder with backup goalkeeper Michelle Betos and their first- and second-round picks in the 2015 NWSL draft for Leroux.
In Leroux, the Reign had the kind of player they had wanted from Day 1. She was local, marketable and, most importantly, a rising American star. Leroux, still just 23, was second in NWSL with 11 goals in 2013 and already has 24 international goals in just 43 caps.
"I wanted to be back near my family," Leroux said about her reasoning behind her desire to switch teams. "I’ve basically been away from my family since I was 14 years old. It was time for me to head back home. I had played in Seattle before and I loved the city. Laura is a great coach. Although it was hard for me to leave Boston, I’m very excited to come back home.
"I’m really excited. I hope I can come in there and make a difference. Everyone knows that Seattle, especially with the moves they made this year, is definitely going to be a tough one."
The addition of Leroux also adds some intrigue to the budding rivalry with the Thorns, who are led by good friend and fellow USWNT forward Morgan.
"Me and Alex are really good friends and we definitely have a little rivalry between each other," Leroux said. "It will definitely be fun."
The other big move of the offseason was bringing in Little, one of Harvey’s top players when they were both at Arsenal. The 23-year-old Scotland international had a rather astounding 81 goals in 93 league games from 2008-13. But signing Little wasn’t quite as easy as convincing Harvey’s former player to leave the Women’s Premier League power to try out the fledgling NWSL.
First, the Reign had to acquire her discovery rights from the Washington Spirit. That cost the Reign Christine Nairn, their top pick in the 2013 draft and the Reign’s assist leader. Just for good measure, the Reign also acquired Beverly Goebel on loan and Danielle Foxhoven in a trade. Goebel is coming off a season in which she scored 13 goals in 17 competitive matches and helped lead Japan’s INAC Kobe to the International Women’s Club Championship title. Foxhoven, whose departure from the Thorns has added yet another element to that burgeoning rivalry, scored four goals in less than 1,000 minutes last year.
"The signings that we’ve made are great," Harvey said. "On paper will they make our team better? Yes. But the reality is that until you work at it, until you train at it, you’re never going to know. We’ll have a different persona outside from fans and we have to work collectively. It will constantly evolve.
"But for us to go from a startup business, company, club to suddenly being world beaters in 24 months would be crazy. It’s an evolution. It’s something we’ll constantly keep working. I’m sure we’ll make a ton of mistakes, but it won’t be for a lack of trying."
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A year ago, Harvey effectively played the hand she was dealt with most of the key players on the Reign's roster literally being allocated to them like a card game. As it were, the Reign got less out of their allocation than basically every other team in the league as Solo (injury), Rapinoe (signed with Olympique Lyonnais) and Rodriguez (pregnancy) were all unavailable for at least half the year.
Roster rules being what they were and time being as limited as it was, there just wasn't much room for Harvey to show off her talent-evaluation acumen. This was a coach who had built a women's soccer dynasty at Arsenal, after all, in no small part because her ability to acquire talent was only limited by her ability to find it.
The NWSL requires a different kind of tool box. Trades, not transfers, are how business gets done. Harvey is proving a quick study. Sure, there's an air of desperation hovering above such a massive overhaul. But this was a team that was founded with the stated intention of becoming a world power. Business as usual was not going to suffice.
The aforementioned website served as a perfect illustration of Harvey's activity. With roster overhaul seemingly complete, it will probably never return to its former glory. That's just fine. The Reign now seek something that is a bit more permanent.