TACOMA — What’s now referred to as The Yates Report is a horror story that gets worse by the sentence and has an ending only because the all-women investigative team retained by the U.S. Soccer Federation and led by Sally Yates, a former U.S. Deputy Attorney General, wanted the findings released in a timely fashion.
The depths of ineptness and systemic abuse Yates confirmed within the NWSL, USSF and youth soccer make the heights OL Reign have scaled even more impressive. Raising their flag atop the Space Needle on Friday wasn’t just a routine gesture the city’s pro sports teams receive during their postseason runs, it’s a marker of a 10-year breakthrough.
Pushing the club toward this moment every day since 2013 are three players collectively called “The OGs,” short for originals. Individually they’re forward Megan Rapinoe, midfielder Jess Fishlock and defender Lu Barnes. Playfully they’re Pinoe, Rattail and Hamster Cheeks. And … the list does go on; that’s what happens when you’re a cherished member of a club for a decade.
“This year definitely feels like this is the year where we’re actually together,” said Fishlock, whose club was established by entrepreneurial couple Bill and Teresa Predmore as part of a then-eight-team league hastily formed, according to the report, on the steam of the U.S. women’s national team’s gold-medal-winning performance in the 2012 London Olympics. The Predmores sold a majority stake to France-based OL Groupe in 2019, the new ownership changing the branding and brokering deals to play at Lumen Field and train at Starfire Sports in Tukwila.
At the league level, where no tangible policies and protocols existed through 2021, according to the report’s findings, the NWSL enacted anti-harassment policies last year and signed its first-ever collective-bargaining agreement with the Players Association in April 2022.
“The transition period is over,” Fishlock said of an emotional four years that culminated in the Predmores stepping down from their operational roles in February but remaining connected like family. “We’re the team that we should’ve always have been if we didn’t have to have all of the stuff that had happened.”
The OGs, who helped the Reign win their third NWSL Shield — awarded to the team with the best regular-season record, and rewards each player with a $10,000 bonus — want to cement their new foundation with the club’s first league championship. The top-seeded Bold (11-4-7) host the fifth-seeded Kansas City Current (10-6-6) at 4:30 p.m. Sunday at Lumen Field.
“This group, they respect our older [players] so much they know how much this means to us and we can feel that energy, which has been really fun,” said Barnes, who is one of just six players on the roster in their 30s. “We’re really hungry. This team from Day [One] has always wanted to win it. You can see that with the Shield. We stuck in there through ups and downs of the season. We pushed through, and that shows who our team is and our identity this year.”
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The Yates Report focuses on three organizations that were overwhelmingly egregious in the Portland Thorns FC (which also reached the semifinals), Chicago Red Stars and Racing Louisville. The NWSL/NWSLPA Joint Investigation is ongoing.
No club is unscathed. Former players Kaiya McCullough (Washington Post) and Mana Shim and Sinead Farrelly (The Athletic) shared their story of abuse on the record in 2021, which prompted the investigations. The Reign are one of five clubs that made coaching changes, as Farid Benstiti resigned due to allegations of abuse last season, and coaches from the Washington Spirit, Orlando Pride and Houston have been suspended or fired. Rapinoe and other prominent players have called for the sale of multiple teams, and new NWSL executive leadership is in place due to the negligence.
The Reign were also mentioned in the report for having inadequate conditions. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and racial uprising in 2020 made evident the team needed mental-health resources, safe spaces to discuss race and basics such as a human-resources staff.
“We’re in close communication with our players to make sure they feel safe, and to also hear what other ideas they have in how they want to move forward,” Reign CEO Vincent Berthillot said. “We’ll never get to a point where we can say, ‘We’ve done everything we need, we don’t need to worry about this anymore.’ Society is constantly changing, so this is something that all organizations at the NWSL level will have to work on in an ongoing basis and probably forever. We have to remain vigilant, [because] the report shows it’s not a problem that’s going to be fixed in one day, but we have to implement the recommendations as quickly as possible.”
Still, when newer Reign players such as defender Sofia Huerta, midfielder Nikki Stanton, defender Phoebe McClernon, midfielder Rose Lavelle, forward Tziarra King and defender Alana Cook joined the team, it was almost therapeutic to some of their experiences elsewhere, Fishlock said.
“We wanted to get everything right, and what’s made us kind of stand out from the big fire around us is that if we did get it wrong we tried to make it right,” Barnes said of the philosophy instilled by the Predmores and coach Laura Harvey and shaped by The OGs to treat players holistically. “We’ve come to see now that we didn’t learn before within this league and that these people were still kind of hanging around. Things were said, and we didn’t learn. It’s been really evident here that if we [players] or staff brought up concerns they’re taken very seriously.”
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The OGs were brought together by happenstance. Harvey, an Englishwoman who coached Arsenal in the country’s Women’s Super League, had to game plan against a feisty Fishlock and Bristol Academy. They never formally met, but Harvey knew the Wales international would be a good signing.
Rapinoe was assigned to the Reign when the USSF was paying the salaries for the U.S. women’s national team players on NWSL rosters; the clubs handle those now. And Barnes was a supplemental draft pick who took a year off to coach after the Women’s Professional Soccer league folded in January 2012.
The team, sans Rapinoe due to a six-month contract with Olympique Lyonnais, the Reign’s sister club in France, met during a preseason trip in Japan. Fishlock’s cropped hairstyle had a strand that looked like a rattail to Barnes, hence the nickname. The latter had puffy cheeks.
The Reign began their inaugural season with a draw and then went on a nine-game losing streak. Rapinoe became known as the team’s “light,” because her arrival helped snap the streak. She was the team’s Golden Boot winner (five goals).
Fishlock was named team MVP after starting 21 games, and Barnes earned the first team Defensive Player of the Year award, starting every match and subbing off once.
A decade later Fishlock is the 2021 league MVP, and Barnes leads the club in appearances (171) and minutes played (14,834). Rapinoe remains a light, leading the club in all-time goals (50), this season’s seven in the closing nine matches helping to lift the Reign to the top of the league standings, edging archrival Portland by one point for the Shield.
“The last two to three years have been a lot,” said Rapinoe, who has dealt with injuries and missed the 2020 season due to safety concerns amid the pandemic. “Even though I had some injuries in the beginning of the year, I felt like I got a break and was able to rebuild my body again.
“But a huge part of it is the way that we’re playing and how good the team is. It’s easy for me to just go out there and just play my game, because there’s so many weapons around. … For Jess, Lu and I, we all feel the same: The system is us, and we are the system. It’s this living and breathing thing. The culmination of all of that — just being able to play free and enjoy my role here.”
As the OGs put in the work to win the first championship, there are thoughts about the future. Through all of the changes, the Reign are playing in their fourth consecutive NWSL semifinal match and making their sixth playoff appearance overall.
Traditions the club wants to keep.
“We [The OGs] want to create this cycle where it just is like, you’re in, you’re out, you’re in, you’re out but nothing changes in terms of we’re not going backward,” Barnes said. “We’re continuing to move forward and be the best club in the world.”