The Reign will unveil a fresh look — edge and grit, not clean and proper — in its National Women’s Soccer League season opener Sunday.
“We have more bite,” Reign coach Vlatko Andonovski said.
In Andonovski’s second season at the helm, he shook up the roster again during the offseason to feature younger players to match a new home field and jersey sponsorship, in addition to the new alternative kits and Boeing sponsorship announced Thursday. Andonovski expects the alterations to move the Reign closer to an elusive league championship.
“We wanted to get younger, but not to just have a young team,” Andonovski said. “Now we have more energetic, more intense and more dynamic players. That’s part of the game that we were missing last year a little bit.”
The Reign makes its 2019 debut in Houston against the Dash, which finished sixth in NWSL standings last year. The Reign returns for a home-opener April 21 against the Orlando Pride.
Last season marked the Reign’s first trip to the NWSL postseason since 2015. But a second-half defensive breakdown led to a 2-1 loss to rival Portland in the first game of the playoffs, the league’s semifinal round.
It took a moment for the Reign, which finished 11-5-8, to recognize the positives it achieved during what many thought would be a down season due to the departure of mainstay coach Laura Harvey. Instead, the Reign was second in the league standings for majority of its 2018 campaign and took on Andonovski’s defensive mindset to allow opponents a combined 19 goals compared to 37 in 2017.
However, injuries became a theme later in the season. Midfielder Megan Rapinoe suffered a rib injury a month before the playoffs while midfielder Allie Long was limited due to a knee injury and defender Lauren Barnes needed muscle relaxers in order to play in the semifinal match. Forward Jodie Taylor and defender Steph Catley both had knee surgeries after the semifinal loss.
All returned healthy this season.
“I still believe if we had everyone healthy and ready for that (playoff) game, the outcome would have been different,” Andonovski said. “There were so many things that went wrong for us at the wrong time. Anytime you have an injury, it’s not a good time. But in a playoff semifinal game is definitely not a good time.”
The Reign relocated to Tacoma and will now play at Cheney Stadium, a 6,500-seat facility that serves alcohol — the club’s former venue, Memorial Stadium at Seattle Center, did not.
In the lineup rotation are six new players, four of whom are a maximum four years removed from their college careers. Among the six newcomers are forwards Darian Jenkins and Shea Groom and Spanish defender Celia Jimenez Delgado. While training with the Reign in 2018, Jimenez played for the Sounders’ women’s team, which won the Women’s Premier Soccer League title, before signing with FC Rosengård in Sweden and then returning to the Reign.
The Reign lost Japanese forward Nahomi Kawasumi in a trade for Groom, and defender Yael Averbuch will not play this season due to her ongoing battle with ulcerative colitis. Midfielder Jess Fishlock isn’t expected back until early June because she’s on loan to French club Olympique Lyon, which is in the UEFA Champions League semifinals.
Eight players on the current roster are expected to be called up to participate in the FIFA Women’s World Cup, which begins in June and ends July 7 in France. The NWSL opted to not have a hiatus during the international competition, scheduling the bulk of its season after the World Cup concludes.
Key games to watch
April 21 vs. Orlando Pride: In addition to the normal fanfare of opening a season and a new playing surface, the Pride bring soccer faves Alex Morgan and Marta to town in what should be a competitive game.
July 28 vs. Chicago Red Stars: The U.S. women’s national team roster for the World Cup hasn’t been announced, but Rapinoe and Long are likely to receive a nod. Red Stars players Julie Ertz, Alyssa Naeher, Tierna Davidson, Casey Short and Danielle Colaprico are also expected to be headed to France. If so, the July game will be a patriotic homecoming for the American players.
Aug. 7 vs. Portland Thorns: The heated rivalry continues with the Reign aiming to avenge last season’s postseason loss to Portland.