OL Reign captain Megan Rapinoe is not training with the club in Montana, The Seattle Times confirmed Thursday. The Reign is preparing for National Women’s Soccer League’s Challenge Cup to be played in Utah later this month.
Rapinoe, 34, is one of soccer’s biggest stars, leading the U.S. Women’s National Team to a World Cup win last summer and earning the FIFA Women’s Player of the Year award in September.
The winger utilized her platform at the FIFA ceremony in Italy and since to push for social justice, including pay equality. Those topics are the only statements Rapinoe has made publicly since NWSL announced its return last week.
Rapinoe is expected to join Storm point guard Sue Bird and Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson to virtually host the ESPYs on June 21.
NWSL teams aren’t required to announce finalized rosters for the tournament until June 21. OL Reign did not offer comment regarding Rapinoe. First-year coach Farid Benstiti told the French publication, Le Progres in his native Lyon, Rapinoe’s reasons are due to the spread of the coronavirus pandemic and compact tournament schedule where if the Reign reached the title match, the team would play seven games in 26 days.
The league announced in March the delay of the start of its 2020 season. The Reign only began voluntary training May 25. Participation in the tournament is also voluntary, with Utah Royals FC owner Dell Loy Hansen financing all COVID-19 tests.
“(It’s) too bad,” Benstiti said as translated from French by Google. “I understand her motivations but I am disappointed and frustrated that she is not with us to compete in this tournament. Megan is important to the group and we could have accomplished something important with the club, if she had joined the rest of the group. She’s going to be missed a lot by the team but also in women’s football.”
Tacoma, where the Reign is based, has yet to be approved for large group activities under Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening plan. The club shopped for an out-of-state site to train and landed on the University of Montana in Missoula.
Grizzles women’s soccer coach Chris Citowicki said he was contacted by the Reign on May 26 and received quick approval from the school’s administration to welcome the team to the campus Sunday.
Regardless of the absence of Rapinoe, the Reign has drawn large crowds from the town of approximately 75,000 people. Under NWSL safety protocols to defend against the virus, none are permitted to view training inside the 1,000-seat South Campus Stadium and the Reign players are not permitted to sign autographs or take photos with anyone when exploring Missoula.
“The community is in love with the team, I had no idea,” said Citowicki of Missoula, which is in Phase 2 of its reopening. “You look along the fence and everywhere there’s a little gap, you’ve got somebody laying on the ground looking through the windscreen just trying to catch a glimpse of these players.”
Citowicki, whose team was unbeaten in Big Sky play last season, said his school was chosen because the field was resurfaced with natural grass last year and other facilities, like the weight room, feature modern equipment and technology.
But as part of the nationwide shutdown of businesses, schools and sports due to the spread of COVID-19, Montana’s grounds crew was furloughed. The Reign had an off-day Wednesday, giving Citowicki an opportunity to seed the grass while his assistants handled refreshing the painted soccer lines.
Benstiti invited Citowicki and his staff in to view — at a distance — aspects of how the Reign is preparing for the tournament. The eighth-seeded Reign will depart Montana by June 27 for their Challenge Cup opener against Sky Blue FC on June 30 at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah.
The tournament kickoff is between the top-seeded Chicago Stars and ninth-seeded Orlando Pride on June 27 at Zions Bank. The semifinals (July 22) and championship match (July 26) will be played at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah.
Fans will not be permitted in the stadiums. Matches will air on CBS, CBS All Access, and Twitch for those outside the U.S. and Canada.
“Our team, knowing the Reign is here using our facilities? They are so fired up,” said Citowicki, whose preseason opens late-August and university is open for in-person learning. “They are even more eager to get back to training.”